George Mason University

News at Mason

Failure Is Not an Option: Science and Math Accelerator Offers Academic Boost

February 8, 2012

By Michele McDonald

Mason student Radleigh Smith tutors students as part of the Accelerator program. Photo by Alexis Glenn

If Radleigh Smith has any say, students won’t fail the notoriously tough organic chemistry course.

“I refuse to let someone fail,” says Smith, a biochemistry and molecular biology major. “If they are doing their best, there’s no reason they should fail.”

Smith, a Mason undergraduate learning assistant, is part of a new state-funded program in Mason’s College of Science called the Science and Math Accelerator. The program, which kicks off this semester, is designed to attract more science majors to the college, especially underrepresented groups.

The goals, according to Cody W. Edwards, the Accelerator’s director, are to retain those students, help them graduate in a timely manner and, finally, help land them a job in a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) field.

But, first, passing key courses such as organic chemistry (known by some as “weed-out” courses) is a must for the college’s 2,400 students. Accelerator professors and tutors are set to help.

When students bomb the first test, “They’re ready to give up,” Smith says. “They’re ready to drop the class. I’ll explain it as many times as I need to until that lightbulb turns on. But I need them to put forth a little effort, too.”

Mary Nelson, mathematics STEM Accelerator and term assistant professor, tackles calculus. She helps groups of five to six students review class material before an exam. She stresses teaching students to think through the problems. She had great success with the approach when she taught at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Katherine Pettigrew, left, is a member of the Accelerator faculty for chemistry and biochemistry. Photo by Evan Cantwell

“We’re trying to get away from students mimicking what the professor writes on the board to thinking about how they can make sense of the ideas and then apply them to solve novel problems,” says Nelson.

Tim Born, associate dean of student and academic affairs in the College of Science, agrees.

“When students teach themselves to think scientifically, they can find the answer to questions in more than just calculus or chemistry. The method applies to classes throughout the college.”

According to Born, the Commonwealth of Virginia gave the College of Science $1 million on a continuing basis to fund the Accelerator. Additional money went to programs in Mason’s Volgenau School of Engineering and College of Health and Human Services. In total, Mason received about $3 million from the state for STEM support.

Other members of the Accelerator faculty and their specialties include Amin Jazaeri, physics; Katherine Pettigrew, chemistry and biochemistry; Jocelyn Prendergast, forensics; and Claudette Davis and Reid Schwebach, biology. Schwebach also serves as the coordinator for the Governor’s School@Innovation Park, an intensive STEM program for high school students on Mason’s Prince William Campus.

The Accelerator is designed to stop failure before it happens. Starting this semester, freshmen and transfer students will take assessment tests in selected courses. Professors will use the results to identify at-risk students enrolled in various “bottleneck” courses.

“Even though we get very qualified students here, we find many students are not prepared to enter into and complete successfully physics, math, chemistry, biology courses and so on,” says Edwards. “This is not just at Mason but across the board on other campuses. We are targeting those students. We want to intervene before they start failing exams, becoming discouraged and leaving the college or the university.”

Students can also take a pre-course class. “They’re not remedial courses — they’re designed to teach students how to think scientifically,” says Edwards.

Edwards hopes the peer-to-peer tutoring approach will break through barriers. “How do you get students to come to you for help?” he asks. “If they’re doing poorly, they don’t want to talk to the professor. They think you’re going to say to them, ‘Oh, you’re the one who made 34 on the exam.’”

The Accelerator is not just for Mason students but future students as well. Edwards notes that while Mason professors went to local schools and judged science fairs in the past, it’s now a focused effort to attract more science students to Mason. The college needs to bring its story to prospective students, not rely upon them to dive into a website, he says.

The Accelerator program brings students to campus to tour labs and attend lectures to “let them experience what life on campus is like,” says Edwards.

Once at Mason, the college aims to keep students on track to graduate by encouraging them to stick to a timeline. “We want to make certain they are getting these degrees completed in five years or less,” says Edwards.

Then there’s the job market.

“We want to put our graduates in STEM fields in the state,” says Edwards. “That’s our priority — state of Virginia first, elsewhere second.”

Accelerator’s job push includes, but goes beyond, career fairs, Edwards says. Alumni will be tapped. “We want them to come back and talk to these students because there’s nothing better than seeing a George Mason graduate who is successful in the field that you want to get into and asking them how they did it.”

Edwards adds, “You can always get people on board when you’re in the Final Four,” referring to the NCAA basketball championship. “People always love success in sports. I want to see that kind of enthusiasm for our academics.”

For more information on the Science and Math Accelerator, visit the Facebook page.