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Setting the Stage for the College Experience: Biology Bootcamp Facilitates the Transition from High School to College

Student Success Orientation, Transition and Retention Faculty Mid-Level New Professional Senior Level
Matthew Jenny Kim Lackey Kaleb Heinrich

In the summer of 2017, the Department of Biological Sciences at The University of Alabama held its first Bama Biology Bootcamp (B3), a one-week intensive program for incoming Biological Sciences majors and other first year students enrolled in introductory biology courses (https://b3.as.ua.edu/).  The B3 program is designed to help first year college students successfully transition from high school by setting the stage for their college experience through a supportive learning community.  The bootcamp was initially setup with the assistance from colleagues at Louisiana State University and is modelled after their BIOS program, which has been demonstrated to increase second year retention rates by 5% and 4-year graduation rates by 10% (https://louis.lsu.edu/science/bios/a-one-week-boot-camp.pdf).  The UA B3 program exposes students to academic support services around campus and academic class expectations.  They work together in mentored small groups to learn effective study habits and time management skills that are transferable across courses.  B3 students meet faculty, graduate, and current undergraduate students who participate in the bootcamp.  Together they serve as small group peer mentors.  Students also participate in laboratory, campus and research tours, and ice breakers.  Students learn about careers in biology, work in teams and build support groups for successful transitioning through the Biological Sciences curriculum.  The preliminary data from the B3 program is very promising.  Students completing the program exhibit better percentages of passing grades and a low withdrawal rate in our undergraduate majors entry course Principles of Biology I (e.g., only 4% in the 2017 cohort).  Our B3 students also exhibit a strong second year retention rate (93.3%).  

Students have also shared feedback about how the program has impacted their college experience, including thoughts about how it helped to feel like part of the department, interact with faculty and connect with other students.

“Bama Biology Bootcamp helped me tremendously last summer. Without being part of the program, I would have been lost. It’s an extremely useful experience that allowed me to gain insight into the university, the Biology Department, my potential professors, and the biological curriculum.”  
“I made many friends and was allowed to make a connection with the professors before classes start.”

Students have also expressed positive opinions on the co-curricular exposure that the program enabled.

“I really enjoyed seeing all of the laboratories and understanding that college is about more than the classroom.”

 High Attrition Rates in Freshman Biology Contribute to Loss of STEM Students

Like other universities that experience a high attrition rate amongst students seeking to complete their undergraduate degree in a STEM field, we found through a self-analysis that >60% of incoming undergraduates who declare biology as a major in their first semester leave the program before the end of their sophomore year.  Furthermore, on average only 22.5% of these incoming freshman actually complete their bachelor’s degree in biology within six years.  Based on several years of data on student performance in our Principles of Biology I course, we found that on average 34% of these students either completed the course with a final grade below the minimum required C- or withdrew from the course before the end of the term (i.e., DWF rate of 34%).  Success in the course was strongly correlated with ACT scores, with ~82% of students within the DWF category having a composite ACT score of 26 or less, while only 18% of students in the DWF category had an ACT score of 27 or greater.  These data establish metrics by which we can determine the success of current initiatives to increase student retention within our majors program.   

Expanding Student Engagement

During the first three years of the B3 program, 185 students have taken part in the bootcamp. Seeing the value of B3, we are working to expand the program and have established a scholarship fund to assist those with financial needs.  In the Fall 2020 semester we began offering a new one credit hour course for incoming students entitled “Introduction to Principles of Biology”.  This course is designed around the principles of metacognition and student learning highlighted in the book by Dr. Saundra Y. McGuire, entitled “Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation”.  Following the basic approach of metacognition, the course promotes self-monitoring by assisting students in determining the best learning strategies and study skills that work for them.  As with the B3 bootcamp, the course focuses on building self-confidence, critical thinking, time-management skills, as well as ways for coping with stress and test-anxiety.  With the help of college advising staff, we actively reached out during orientation to promote the course to students with low ACT scores that we know put them at a greater risk of not successfully completing the Principles of Biology I course. In this first year, we have enrolled 296 students.  While the COVID-19 pandemic has presented unique challenges, the graduate teaching assistants have adapted the course to operate in a hybrid setting.  Although it will be several years before we can fully assess the impact of this course on student retention, as the semester progresses teaching assistants have observed improvements in student self-assessment and a more active and earlier approach to studying for exams.

This model demonstrates the value and need for innovative approaches to address student retention that adapt the first year experience to provide additional support to at risk students.

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About the Authors:

Matthew Jenny (@DrMattJenny) is an Associate Professor of Molecular Toxicology and current Associate Chairperson of the Department of Biological Sciences (@UaDeptBSC) at The University of Alabama.

Kim Lackey is an Assistant Professor and Optical Analysis Facility Coordinator in the Department of Biological Sciences at The University of Alabama.  She teaches BSC 114 Principles of Biology I and works closely with the Department’s outreach and freshman transition programs.

Kaleb Heinrich (@Dr_K_Heinrich) is an Assistant Professor of Biology Education in the Department of Biological Sciences at The University of Alabama. He teaches BSC 114 Principles of Biology I and II, and supports the department as the Advising Coordinator.