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Innovation and Incubator Grants from the University System of Georgia

Cultivating a Community of STEM Polymaths at the University of North Georgia (UNG)

University of North Georgia


Grant Type: 
Project Lead: 
Sarah Formica, Ph.D.
Fuller E. Callaway Professorial Chair and Associate Professor of Physics
Other team members: 

Royce Dansby-Sparks, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Chemistry

Margaret Smith, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Biology

Gregg Velatini
Assistant Professor of Mathematics

Project Overview: 

The proposed project provides a systematic approach to increasing the number of students who persist in STEM at the University of North Georgia (UNG), increasing UNG’s STEM graduation rate, and fostering an environment of transdisciplinary learning to generate STEM polymaths who are primed and ready to contribute to the Nation’s workforce. We will accomplish this goal by implementing Transdisciplinary (TD) Laboratory courses. We will support UNG undergraduates with declared majors in biology, chemistry, mathematics, and/or physics and promote measurable outcomes of student success. The TD Lab courses will stimulate student interest in STEM and improve their quantitative literacy. 

Project Description: 

Impact on Completion

By implementing a TD Laboratory course that promotes student interest in STEM and improved quantitative reasoning, we will develop a much larger and more talented pool of STEM graduates who will transition into a diverse, globally competitive STEM workforce and become better candidates for STEM graduate programs.

Potential Lessons to be Learned

The project evaluates an innovative approach to developing a program to foster a community of STEM polymaths through a systematic experimental design. This evaluation will provide data to address the efficacy of transdisciplinary pedagogies at reducing STEM attrition, improving quantitative literacy, and increasing STEM graduation rates.


Area of Need on the UNG-Dahlonega Campus

The University of North Georgia (UNG), Dahlonega, suffers from high attrition of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) majors and low STEM graduation rates. During the years 2002-2012, at UNG-Dahlonega, on average about half of first-time, full-time freshman STEM majors left STEM after their first year and a fifth left the university entirely (UNG Office of Institutional Effectiveness 2014). Most UNG STEM students have little to no exposure to realistic scientific questions and are unable to recognize the inherently transdisciplinary nature of science and mathematics. For those who did persist in STEM, only about 10% graduated with a baccalaureate degree in four years and about 20% graduated in six years, but many are not adequately prepared for a career or graduate study in STEM because, while they have sufficient unidisciplinary STEM knowledge, they lack the soft skills, communication, teamwork, and real-world problem-solving abilities needed in the workforce.

How Cultivating a Community of STEM Polymaths at UNG Will Address this Need

In response to this challenge, a transdisciplinary (TD) team of UNG STEM faculty – from biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics - will design and develop hands-on laboratory experiments that employ empirical, interpretive, critical, and transdisciplinary research methodologies. The TD Laboratory curriculum will focus on fundamental concepts and essential skills development, and stress the critical insights and technological approaches that lead to scientific discovery. The TD experiments will expose students to substantive scientific questions and real-world observations. We will present to students the analysis of real world quantitative information that will facilitate their ability to draw conclusions relevant to their daily lives to both spark their intellectual curiosity and develop their quantitative reasoning skills. This will allow us to further advance their problem solving and critical thinking skills as well as more broadly applicable skills such as oral and written communication. Our method will be to develop new laboratories that bolster the students’ mathematics comprehension through quantitative literacy embedded throughout their earliest laboratory experiences, with the mathematics blended so uniformly into the curriculum that we like to think of it as the “Shepherd’s Pie” approach.  Just as children may refuse to eat peas and carrots if placed separately on a plate but often relish (or are fooled into) eating vegetables mixed or hidden in other dishes, we will blend all the STEM areas together with mathematics being the potato binder and the faculty being the chefs.

How Cultivating a Community of STEM Polymaths at UNG Will Impact Student Success and College Completion in STEM

The TD laboratory curriculum will expose undergraduate STEM students to cutting-edge techniques and new scientific frontiers, which will foster creativity and passion about scientific research, help undergraduates develop skills in analytical thinking and experimental design, and improve their technological fluency. Undergraduate STEM majors will learn higher thinking skills, as well as technique development, question formation and hypothesis testing, data and error analysis, oral and written reporting, and how to explore in an open-ended way details of phenomena that are familiar and interesting to students. In turn, this will improve persistence by stimulating student interest and participation in STEM (National Research Council 2003).

The TD Labs will bring together multiple faculty members from varied STEM disciplines to present distinct perspectives on the same topic, often topics of research conducted at UNG. This will promote faculty collaboration across the STEM discipline “silos” and provide opportunities for the students to engage in undergraduate research. When students engage in undergraduate research, they are more likely to complete their undergraduate education (Nagda 1998, Ishiyama 2001) and are more likely to go on to graduate school (Kremer 1990, Chandra 1998, Alexander 2000, Foertsch 2000, Ishiyama 2001, Bauer 2003) than students who do not participate in undergraduate research. The TD Labs will foster the growth of undergraduate research at UNG, which will help to retain more students in STEM and increase the number of students that graduate with a degree in STEM. Additionally, the TD Labs along with the students’ engagement in undergraduate research will better prepare UNG students for careers or graduate study in STEM.

Potential lessons learned from Cultivating a Community of STEM Polymaths at UNG

The proposed project will evaluate an innovative approach to developing a program to foster a community of STEM polymaths through a systematic treatment vs. control experimental design. This evaluation will provide data to address the efficacy of transdisciplinary pedagogies at reducing STEM attrition and improving quantitative reasoning skills. A quantitative reasoning assessment instrument will be administered to all first year STEM students in a laboratory course (traditional labs and TD labs), first as a pre-test to probe the students’ initial quantitative reasoning abilities and then as a post-test to measure their quantitative reasoning learning gains. With the help of UNG’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness, the GPAs of the treatment and control groups will be compared to show how the TD Labs provide the academic support and intellectual curiosity needed to help first-year students persist. The conclusions made from these analyses will be used to improve the TD Lab experience for the following academic year’s cohort and beyond. The project will lay the groundwork for a sustainable transformation of the UNG College of Science & Mathematics infrastructure that will build on well-established best practices for increasing retention and improving performance and will have far-reaching impacts.

Impact Cultivating a Community of STEM Polymaths at UNG could have on the institution, or even on USG

The proposed project represents a well-documented model to increase the retention and graduation rates of STEM undergraduates and improve the STEM undergraduate learning experience. By implementing TD Laboratory courses, the project will prepare and develop a larger and more talented pool of STEM undergraduates who will transition into a diverse, globally competitive STEM workforce. The project will enhance institutional capacity - with curriculum reform and development - to continue improving STEM retention and education beyond the proposed timeline. Additionally, it will serve as a model approach to developing a systematic program of support and engagement in STEM across a multiple-campus university and will begin to set the standard for STEM education at comprehensive liberal arts institutions.

This project will disseminate the following results: (1) Effective interventions to improve STEM student success and (2) Data providing evidence of successful outcomes.


Dissemination Strategy

Target Audience


Present professional development presentations to STEM faculty/staff on developing communities of STEM polymaths

Faculty and staff


Upload outcomes data/methodologies into the National STEM Education Distributed Learning Data Repository

STEM education community through open source software


Develop news releases for dissemination by University Relations through the news media and the UNG web site

Faculty, staff, students, and the UNG community


Present outcomes at professional conferences

STEM education community


Publish outcomes in professional journals

STEM education community


Post outcomes and methodologies on the UNG College of Science & Mathematics web site, which is accessible through the world wide web

Faculty, staff, students, and the STEM education community


The goal of the proposed project is to boost the STEM workforce in Georgia by increasing the retention and persistence of undergraduate STEM majors at UNG and producing STEM polymaths who are primed and ready to enter Georgia’s STEM workforce or USG graduate programs, through the enhancement of their first-year STEM laboratory experience.  The overarching goal of this project will be reached through the proposed objectives: (1) increase the retention and persistence of undergraduate STEM majors at UNG by designing and implementing a transformed and TD laboratory curriculum, and (2) enrich UNG STEM majors’ academic performance and quantitative reasoning skills by engaging them in TD lab experiences that emphasize mathematical capabilities through a uniform blending of mathematics throughout the laboratory curriculum.

A transdisciplinary team of STEM faculty will design the transdisciplinary laboratory experiments, which are the deliverables of the proposed project. The TD faculty team will devise and craft experiments involving real-world problems that require the simultaneous application of biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics to be solved. The experiments will compel students to apply rigorous quantitative approaches to their analyses and help them to recognize the importance of using mathematics to solve meaningful and relevant problems in science. Many of the problems within the experiments will be based on research currently being conducted at UNG by faculty on the design team as well as other faculty in the College of Science & Mathematics.

During the first half (Fall semester) of the proposed project, the TD faculty team will collaborate to design the TD Lab experiments. At the start of the Spring semester, a quantitative literacy/reasoning assessment (QLRA) (Gaze 2014) pre-test will be administered to all first-year STEM students. Four undergraduates from different STEM disciplines will be hired and trained to serve as TD lab assistants. One section, approximately 24-36 students, of the new TD science lab will then be implemented. At the end of the Spring semester, the quantitative reasoning assessment post-test will be administered to the same treatment and control groups, all data will be analyzed using t-tests and ANOVA methods, and results will be disseminated during the last months of the proposed project. 









TD Faculty Team meets, launch TD Lab design

Faculty meet, are oriented to their respective roles

Interdisciplinary Labs, Harvey Mudd College (Van Hecke 2002)

TD Faculty Team



TD Faculty Team meets regularly, designs 12 TD experiments

TD experiments designed

Faculty from College of Science & Mathematics

TD Faculty Team



Administer QR Assessment Pre-Test to all first year STEM students

Assess student performance

QLRA test

STEM Lab Faculty


Hire and train 4 undergraduate lab assistants

Staff hired as planned, oriented to respective roles in the project


TD Faculty Team


Implement one section (24-36 students) of the new TD Lab

One TD Lab section designed, ready for delivery, faculty and lab assistants trained for pilot


TD Faculty Team



Administer QR Assessment Post-Test to all first year STEM students

Measure student performance in pilot TD Lab section

QLRA test

STEM Lab Faculty



Collect and compare data from the QR Assessment and UNG Office of Institutional Research

Evaluation completed, report received; recommendations processed, tactical changes made in implementation strategies as appropriate

UNG Office of Institutional Research

TD Faculty Team



Disseminate Results

Dissemination of outcomes to the STEM community

News Releases, data repository, professional conferences and journals

TD Faculty Team



  • Four faculty to serve on the TD Faculty Design team
  • Four undergraduates, one from biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics, to serve as TD lab assistants
  • Quantitative Literacy/Reasoning Assessment (QLRA) Instrument


  • TD Faculty team designs TD Lab experiments and problems
  • TD Faculty team trains undergraduate lab assistants
  • STEM Faculty administer QRLA pre-test
  • One section of the TD Labs is taught
  • STEM Faculty administer the QRLA post-test


  • 12 transdisciplinary lab experiments/problems
  • 4 fully-trained undergraduate lab assistants
  • Data on the efficacy of TD Labs at retaining STEM students
  • Data on the efficacy of TD Labs at improving quantitative reasoning skills
  • Feedback on how to improve the TD Labs for future implementation

Short-term Outcomes

  • First-year STEM students learn to appreciate the transdisciplinary nature of scientific research
  • First-year STEM students develop more interest in STEM and a desire to persist in the STEM major
  • First-year STEM students improve their quantitative reasoning skills
  • TD Faculty Team learns about the efficacy of the TD Labs at improving quantitative reasoning skills
  • TD Faculty Team disseminates results of the project

Long-term Outcomes

  • More STEM students persist in the STEM major
  • More STEM majors graduate with a STEM degree
  • STEM graduates have stronger quantitative reasoning skills
  • STEM graduates are better prepared for a career or graduate study in STEM
  • More sections of the TD Labs are taught at the UNG-Dahlonega campus
  • TD Labs are taught at the UNG-Gainesville campus to help improve retention of associate’s degree STEM students and increase the number of associate’s degree students who transition into the baccalaureate STEM program at UNG-Dahlonega




Budget Item


  1. Senior Personnel
  1. Four (4) course releases for four (4) faculty who serve on the TD Faculty Design Team for one (1) semester for Fall 2015 (4 faculty @ $4,000/semester x 1 semester = $16,000)




  1. Other Personnel
  1. Four (4) undergraduate TD Lab assistants (4 assistants @ $7.75/hour x 8 hours/week x 15 weeks = $3,720)




  1. Fringe Benefits
  1. 6.2% of Salaries and Wages for faculty for FICA and 1.45% for Medicare ($16,000 @ 7.65% = $1,224)


  1. 6.2% of Salaries and Wages for Undergraduate Assistants for FICA and 1.45% for Medicare ($3,720 @ 7.65% = $285)




  1. Equipment



  1. Travel
  1. Travel costs for TD Faculty Team to disseminate results at professional conferences




  1. Participant Support Costs
  1. Professional conference registration fees for TD Faculty Team




  1. Other Direct Costs
  1. Printing and publication costs




  1. Total Direct Costs (A through G)



  1. Indirect Costs



  1. Total Direct and Indirect Costs



  1. Total Residual Funds



  1. Amount of this Request





A comprehensive impact-oriented evaluation system has been developed.  Influenced by Stufflebeam and Shinkfield’s (2007) work on program evaluation, the aims of the evaluation plan are to:  (1) assess accomplishments relative to measurable objectives and performance indicators; (2) align outcomes with USG CCG Innovations Grant priorities, and (3) determine progress in achieving long-range institutional self-sufficiency.  The evaluation design will focus on continuous quality improvement by accumulating formative and summative evidence to serve as the basis for the formative evaluation, allowing for tactical corrections prior to the summative evaluation.  Reports will be available through a project website.

Evaluation Plan:  The Project Lead, assisted by the Office of Institutional Effectiveness, will collect and analyze data and present findings.  A formative evaluation with recommendations will be reviewed by TD Team Members before tactical changes are made in project implementation.  A summative evaluation with recommendations will assess achievements and their effect on problems addressed by the project.  The resulting evaluation reports will be discussed with the Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, the Dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, STEM Department Heads, and STEM faculty.

Objective Numbers

Baseline Indicator


Data Elements

Collection Procedures

Data Analysis Procedures


1 – Increase the retention and persistence of under-graduate STEM majors by designing and implement a TD Lab curriculum

Persistence and retention rates

20% increase in annual retention; curricula revised

Operability Utility Effectiveness Impact

Numbers retained

Faculty & Student Surveys; Cohort Analysis; Audit

Comparative Cohort Analysis

8/2015 to 5/2016

2 – Enrich STEM majors academic performance and quantitative skills by engaging them in TD Lab experiences

Accessibility effectiveness and impact on student success

100% served





Faculty & Student Surveys; Cohort Analysis


Cohort Analysis

1/2016 to 5/2016

Attitude about scientific research, interest in STEM, and desire to persist:  Students’ attitudes about the TD nature of scientific research and their interest in and desire to persist in STEM will be assessed qualitatively through interviews and classroom observation. The TD Faculty Team will interview students from both the treatment group (those in the TD Labs) and the control group (those students in traditional, unidisciplinary science labs) at the end of the Spring semester. By using UNG’s course evaluation system, we will quantitatively assess students’ attitudes by comparing treatment and control group scores on two parts of the survey:  1) Thought provoking ideas and concepts were introduced, and 2) The instructor challenged me to think critically. This analysis will be conducted via ANOVA and t-test methods.

Quantitative literacy and reasoning skills:  We will measure students’ abilities in quantitative reasoning with the Quantitative Literacy/Reasoning Assessment (QLRA) instrument (Gaze 2014). In the Spring semester, students in both the treatment and control groups will be administered the QLRA as a pre-test and as a post-test.  The normalized gain, <g> (Hake 1998), will be calculated for both groups and compared with t-test methods. Student post-test scores will also be compared to National baseline data.

Persistence, academic performance and graduation rates: The Office of Institutional Effectiveness will provide data on student GPAs, the number of first-year STEM majors who persist to the second year, and the graduation rates of STEM majors. These data will be used to evaluate the efficacy of the TD lab curriculum at improving academic performance and persistence in STEM. The GPA data will be used to evaluate academic performance of the treatment and control groups at the end of the Spring semester. The persistence data will be collected at the end of the following Fall semester when former first-year STEM students have completed a semester of their second year. After more TD Lab sections are added at UNG’s Dahlonega and Gainesville campuses, we will compare graduation rate data of the treatment and control groups to measure the efficacy of the TD Lab curriculum at producing more STEM graduates.


Figure 1: Attrition of first-time, full-time baccalaureate-degree seeking students at the University of North Georgia, Dahlonega, after the first year of enrollment, from 2002-2012 (data received from UNG Office of Institutional Effectiveness, 2014).

Figure 2: Percentage of UNG baccalaureate-degree seeking students who graduate with baccalaureate degrees in six years (dark yellow) or four years (dark blue) compared to percentage of UNG students who earned STEM baccalaureate degrees in six years (light yellow) or four years (light blue), from 2002-2012 (data received from UNG Office of Institutional Effectiveness, 2014).


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