STEP was designed to support first-year students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs in the Colleges of Engineering and Applied Sciences (CEAS) and Arts and Sciences (CAS).
STEP was funded in 2004 by the National Science Foundation's STEM Talent Expansion Program. Other names for STEP - First Year Experience for Engineers (FYEE) and STEP Learning Community - indicate its purpose and structure.
STEP began in fall with 21 first-year students from CEAS and CAS who were enrolled as a group or cohort in MATH 1180, CHEM 1100 and 1110, History, and Technical Communication or English. Cluster enrollment was designed to help students get to know each other and study together - to become a learning community.
A faculty mentor kept students informed about academic deadlines, provided opportunities for social interaction, organized tutoring, and was available for other support as needed.
The second year marked a large expansion of the program, with 278 first-year students from CEAS and CAS enrolled in 15 STEP learning communities. A separate learning community was formed for 15 Arts and Sciences students. Groups were organized around mathematics course placement or major program, each with a faculty mentor.
Learning communities grew to 17, involving 297 CEAS and 13 CAS students - a total of 310. Several new groupings were created. Two involved students from the Lee Honors College. Another was formed for students placed into MATH 1100 or MATH 1090 to support students in an applied science or related major at WMU. CAS students were placed in a Biological Sciences Learning Community and enrolled in the same section of General Chemistry I and Lab (CHEM 1100 and 1110) and Molecular and Cellular Biology (BIOS 1500). An Engineering House, established on several floors of Bigelow Hall, accommodated 74 students.
A total of 384 students - 328 from CEAS and 56 from CAS - were placed into 18 learning communities. CAS students now had two communities - one for biological sciences and one for chemistry. Engineering House residents increased to 140. CEAS and Residence Life staff worked together to offer social and professional activities of interest to engineering students.
In 2008, 457 students participated in 18 learning communities - 367 from engineering and 90 from biological sciences and chemistry. Engineering House residents increased to 209.
During the STEP project, a number of supports for first-year STEM students have been put in place, including cohort enrollment, mentoring, joint programming with Residence Life, tutoring resources, and early-warning alerts for students experiencing academic or personal difficulties. Because students know their classmates (and, in Engineering House, their hall-mates), they are more likely to interact socially and academically, easing the transition to college.
As a result, student retention from first to second year has improved both within STEM programs and in Western Michigan University, achieving an important first "step" in the mission of the National Science Foundation - to increase the number of STEM professionals.