The First2 Network is a West Virginia alliance composed of undergraduate students, college faculty, teachers and educators, state policy makers, industry and more who have joined forces to improve the success of STEM students- particularly rural first generation students. We know that, while West Virginia high school students are really interested in STEM careers, only about 30% of those who declare a STEM major graduate with a STEM degree. This is an economic problem for the nation, and for West Virginia. Our aim is to double that success rate.
This effort will take all of us working on multiple parts of the problem together and over a long time. We have established working groups – some members are devoted to increasing the number of early research experiences for our STEM majors, in improving these opportunities, and in documenting what we learn to better serve others. Others are working to enrich the engagement between STEM faculty and their students. Still others are working toward how to ensure our students are ready to be successful STEM majors when they get to college.
Documenting what works and what doesn’t, and how change ideas work across multiple contexts is a central goal of this network. This is how we learn and help others learn from our efforts. Where-ever it is applicable we have adopted a set of tools within a framework called “Improvement Science”, developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
We are funded by the National Science Foundation INCLUDES program, as an NSF INCLUDES Alliance, for a period of five years. NSF INCLUDES (Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science) is a comprehensive national initiative designed to enhance U.S. leadership in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) discoveries and innovations by focusing on broadening participation in these fields at scale.
The NSF INCLUDES program is one of 10 “Big Ideas” that the NSF is devoting substantial time and resources to — recognizing that achieving a truly diverse STEM workforce is hard work, requiring participation by many stakeholders across many sectors, all of whom share a common aim.
2015: The idea to improve STEM persistence among first generation college students got its start in the Frank Drake Lounge at the Green Bank Observatory (GBO). This hallowed room is the location of the first discussion of the probability of intelligent life in the Universe in 1960, and has since been the scene for many a late-night brainstorming session among colleagues. The topic that presaged the First2 Network was on undergraduate STEM research at the Observatory and how, for most, that opportunity came in a student’s junior or senior year, well after the student had made it as a STEM major. We wondered: what could be done to ensure that more students made it through their first and second year’s as STEM majors, and could research internship opportunities make a difference? Conversations with colleagues in academia about STEM culture in our colleges and universities, illuminated the lack of educational research on the experience of rural first generation students. Broader discussions with colleagues in both formal and informal education led to a realization that the students themselves — those in the trenches as a STEM major — must be part of fixing the systems that lead to attrition.
2016: A small band of people including folks from GBO, Fairmont State University, High Rocks Educational Corporation, and WVU College were awarded a two-year grant from the National Science Foundation to try some promising practices that could impact STEM persistence, and to conduct preliminary research aimed at better understanding the motivation of rural first Generation STEM students.
2018: A full NSF INCLUDES Alliance proposal was submitted and in September 2018, we received word that we were one of 5 Alliances to be funded nation-wide.
Back in 2016 when we started the pilot project, the name came from the fact that most STEM majors drop out of the STEM career path during the first 2 years of post-secondary education. But since then we have noticed that the “First to” aspect of our network is exciting! Many of our students are first to go to college, and are first to become change agents and leaders in changing the systems that create the barriers to STEM persistence in the first place.