$7.7 Million ‘Driving Change’ Investments at UVA Give STEM Students Vital Support

Students working at desks together in a classroom.

Students in UVA Engineering’s Bridge program collaborate during an applied mathematics course last summer. (Photo by Tom Cogill)

New funding announced from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute will support the University of Virginia’s efforts to strengthen the study and teaching of science, technology, engineering and math – the “STEM” fields – for all of its students.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, a nonprofit focused on research and philanthropy to advance science and education, will contribute $2.5 million over five years toward Driving Change, a wide-ranging initiative that aims to enhance the academic experience and success of STEM students, particularly those who belong to historically excluded groups.

UVA will dedicate an additional $4 million in institutional funds toward developing and implementing Driving Change at UVA, and the College of Arts & Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Science each will contribute $600,000. The combined investment totals $7.7 million.

UVA faculty members also are engaged in a second STEM-related HHMI initiative, “Inclusive Excellence 3 Learning Community,” known as “IE3.” More than 100 institutions nationwide are participating in the IE3 learning community. UVA is part of a cluster with 13 other institutions focusing specifically on making introductory STEM courses more inclusive, providing a crucial foundation for student success regardless of the preparation they received before coming to the University.

“We are committed to ensuring that students from all educational backgrounds are deeply engaged in our STEM programs and that every student has the opportunity to flourish and succeed in their chosen field of study,” UVA Provost Ian Baucom said. “The University is grateful for the support of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, pleased to invest additional funds, and eager to continue this important work.”

Josipa Roksa Headshot

Josipa Roksa is associate provost for undergraduate education and project director of both the Driving Change and IE3 initiatives at UVA. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Driving Change and IE3 are programs established and coordinated by HHMI. Including UVA, 38 research universities across the country have collaborated since 2020 through the initial phases of Driving Change to generate and share ideas and approaches that will enable undergraduates from all backgrounds to be in the best position to excel in STEM coursework and careers.

“This initiative includes work by faculty to make courses, curricula and departmental climates more inclusive, as well as a range of student-centered programs to provide academic support, enhance undergraduate research, and support student success in STEM,” said Josipa Roksa, associate provost for undergraduate education and project director of both the Driving Change and IE3 initiatives at UVA.

UVA’s collaboration with 13 other institutions through the IE3 Learning Community focuses on improving instruction and evaluation of students in introductory STEM classes to make them more achievement-oriented and to foster success for all students. The IE3 community at UVA includes faculty generating and sharing ideas and pursuing actionable approaches for introductory courses across five programs, led by Jessamyn Manson (biology), Diana Morris (applied math), Jim Rolf (math), Kevin Welch (chemistry) and Xiaochao Zheng (physics).

 

Two students working in a lab on a computer together

UVA is participating in Driving Change, an initiative that aims to enhance the experience and success of STEM students. Here, students work together in a chemical engineering lab course. (Photo by Tom Cogill)

One key in both Driving Change and IE3 is that the initiatives will be coordinated across classrooms and programs in Arts & Sciences and in Engineering, rather than mostly occurring as individual efforts that can sometimes lead to siloed experiences and limited impact.

The UVA team summarized its Driving Change vision: “We aim to build a culture in which all students thrive, irrespective of their race/ethnicity or socioeconomic background, because they feel that they belong; because they have the social, academic, and personal support they need to succeed; and because they are taking full advantage of the available resources. We aim to build a culture in which students are celebrated for working together, which is especially important in STEM, where most successful discoveries and innovations are accomplished by teams.”

The HHMI grant for Driving Change is a catalyst for the work already occurring at UVA. The Engineering Summer Bridge Program, led by the school’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement and the Center for Diversity in Engineering, offers orientations and other introductory sessions to provide new engineering students information, strategies and academic skills to best position them for the work ahead, once they are on Grounds as full-time undergraduates.

UVA Engineering is already working to bolster the program to support students beyond the summer. A new Peer Led Learning program at the Georges Student Center, a hub for advising and student support at UVA, is offering academic support, which will be expanded as part of institutional investment in Driving Change to include supplemental instruction, tutoring, study groups and workshops. These efforts are a recognition that college in general, and STEM classes in particular, are challenging and that students benefit from working together and leveraging resources available to help them excel.

“We intend to make UVA Engineering the most welcoming engineering school in the country for students and faculty from all backgrounds, and then to pursue every avenue possible toward helping them succeed in our classrooms and thrive in their professions,” Jennifer West, dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science, said. “UVA’s involvement with Driving Change and IE3 are important components in this overall commitment.”

As in Engineering, faculty members in Arts & Sciences have launched several related efforts, which will be broadened and shared through Driving Change. One example is the “Faculty Led Initiative,” a 2021 program led by Linda Columbus, professor of chemistry, in which a group of faculty are committed to making changes in their classrooms to increase student belonging and reduce gaps in academic performance.

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“There is clear evidence that programs like the one Professor Columbus and her colleagues designed are having a tremendous, positive impact on all students in those courses,” Christa Acampora, dean of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, said. “We’re seeing significant improvements not only with student success rates in general chemistry, but also in their ability to excel as they progress into more advanced coursework. The HHMI funding will be transformative – accelerating our ability to build on the work that our chemistry faculty have begun and enhancing our capacity to foster similar successes for students in other disciplines and programs.”

Columbus will serve as the faculty director for the HHMI Driving Change Initiative in the College, and Scott Barker, professor of electrical and computer engineering, will lead the work in the Engineering School.

Roksa said faculty collaboration provides the foundation for Driving Change and IE3. Teams of faculty from both Engineering and Arts & Sciences have been working together during the initial, planning phase of both initiatives and will continue to provide support – for students and for one another – as more components of the HMMI work become implemented in the schools.

“Equity and inclusion ideals do not become a reality unless they are implemented on the ground, and that means faculty are front and center of these endeavors,” Roksa said.

In announcing the Driving Change grants, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute said the universities selected “made strong arguments for their readiness to embark on this change journey with experiments that held the best promise of helping the whole community.”

“The expectation is that the lessons learned from the grantees as they implement their programs will feed back into the larger community, helping each one raise the bar for institutional change on their own campuses,” the organization said.  

For more information, visit this site that focuses on the HHMI STEM initiatives at UVA.

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McGregor McCance

Associate Vice President for Communications and Executive Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications