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In Depth: Washington and Lee Launches Advanced Research Cohort (ARC) Pilot 12 exceptional students experience a unique summer program aimed at increasing retention in STEM majors.

“The things they’re putting into practice in terms of community building, leadership, mentorship and working with others will pervade and enrich the entire community.”

In 2014, W&L biology professor Helen I’Anson was inspired during a breakout session at a conference, and returned to campus to share the seed of an idea with Marc Conner, interim provost. That idea — to create a program that would increase retention of underrepresented students in STEM through an early research experience — quickly blossomed into the Advanced Research Cohort (ARC) Program, which was piloted on campus this summer.

The objective was two-fold: to get a diverse group of incoming first-year students interested in STEM in the hopes of retaining them, and to help them flourish by bringing them to campus before the fall start so they would already feel at home, having developed relationships early on with one another, as well as with faculty and with current students.

The program focused initially on three specific initiatives. First, creating an environment for faculty to work closely with students. The university had the Summer Research Scholars program in place for current W&L students, and the ARC program presented an opportunity for incoming students to become involved in ongoing student/faculty research. Second, giving students who already had a powerful interest in science, technology, engineering and math an opportunity to exercise that interest from the very start of their college careers. And third, supporting and encouraging diversity in the STEM fields in particular.

As the team charged with developing and executing the new program expanded, so did its vision and scope. Conner and I’Anson continued to serve as the program’s faculty advisors and mentors, and together with Megan Hobbs, assistant dean of students, and Gregg Whitworth, assistant professor of biology, collaborated in organizing enrichment activities and overseeing the mentoring of the ARC students. Faculty and peer mentors were established, and three student residence assistants were selected to provide mentoring out of the labs and to support and enhance the students’ living and social experiences.

The program creators relied on Sally Richmond, vice president for admissions and financial aid, for help in identifying students who would thrive in the new program.

As a new member of the W&L community at the time, Richmond particularly appreciated the collaborative nature of the project. “Working with Marc, Helen and various academic departments in thinking about the students’ intellectual experience on campus and ensuring that it would be as empowering for them as possible was very rewarding,” said Richmond.

Once the program was announced, applications exceeded expectations by 100 percent, and the decision was made to grow the program before it even started, from the planned six to eight students to a well-rounded group of 12.

“Doubling the number of students made it a much more elaborate program than we’d intended,” said Conner. “But looking back, I’m so grateful that we expanded in that way. It gave us this perfect number of 12, sort of the ‘disciples’ of the ARC program.”

Research and Mentorship

The 12 incoming first-year students arrived on campus in mid-June. For five weeks, they spent their mornings in various labs, assisting faculty and their research students on a wide variety of summer research projects. The ARC students were placed with faculty in all areas of STEM, including math, physics and engineering, biochemistry and chemistry, and biology.

“We were very intentional in placing the students in existing labs with our current students, some of whom have been doing guided research with faculty for two or three summers already,” said Conner. “Part of the goal there was to insert the ARC students into already ongoing lab projects so they really hit the ground running and would be both challenged and also able to meet that challenge in their work.

“Another part of it, though, was to give current students an opportunity to work with these very bright students coming in and have the older students be as much teachers as the faculty,” he continued. The upper-division students became role models for the ARC students, demonstrating essential skills such as how to work with a professor, how to conduct oneself in a lab and how to think about oneself as a science student.

Unlike similar summer bridge programs at other institutions, the ARC program was not focused on providing remedial classes or spending time getting students up to speed on the basics of research. The students jumped right into research projects with faculty and current students on work that will ultimately be published.

“They were doing work from the molecular level up to the whole-animal level in biology and biochemistry,” said I’Anson. “They were working on models and mathematical algorithms in physics, engineering and math. They really worked on everything that we do in STEM at W&L.”

According to Conner, “The faculty raved about the students. If anything, the faculty were able to speed up what they were doing. These students — just out of high school — hadn’t had the introduction to science courses that a student typically would have before doing summer research. And from all the reports I’ve heard, the students just threw themselves into it, and they got a lot of support from the upper-division students in the labs, without which this wouldn’t really have worked.”

Beyond Research: Leadership and a Sense of Community

Because the program’s creators saw equal value in the students being exposed to leadership development opportunities as well as research, the ARC students spent their afternoons participating in a variety of leadership development programs, community service and team-building activities, career presentations and alumni networking. Leadership sessions included individual and group work. And, according to Hobbs, who facilitated the leadership training, a lot of personal reflection.

“One student referred to her time with me as being in ‘time out,’ said Hobbs. “Initially I was taken aback, but it actually caught on and became a great way to think about our time together because it was meant to be just that, a time to take a step back and be reflective, which we don’t do enough as humans, but especially when it comes to the four years you have on a college campus to develop yourself.”

The students, often focused on where their studies might lead in the future, participated in a variety of sessions developed by Molly Steele, assistant director of career development, which included meeting with alumni who shared their experiences in STEM, including graduate programs, research and a wide range of STEM-based careers. In addition, Steele talked to them about career opportunities, pay rates and other topics of interest within the STEM fields.

Conner spent time with the group each week talking about academic planning and sharing tips on how to work with an academic advisor and how to choose a major. And Kelsey Goodwin, director of student activities, helped to round out the ARC students’ experience with advice on campus life and presentations on the various organizations and extracurricular activities available to them as first-year students.

“A typical day,” said Conner, “was half in the lab and half doing this whole plethora of other activities, all of which are designed to try to give them this very rich sense of what it means to be a college student at Washington and Lee.”

The program’s creators also wanted to give the students a powerful sense of community. “I think if there’s a buzzword for the program,” said Conner, “community is a big part of it. We want the ARC students to feel like they’ve got their own community at Washington and Lee, and that Washington and Lee is a community that belongs to them, even before they arrive for the start of their first year.

“There is a sense of communities within communities,” continued Conner. “Of course the larger goal is that it grows out from the STEM areas themselves. While a student might be a biochemistry major, he or she might also be a pianist and an athlete, taking other courses — experiencing the whole liberal arts ideal. So the things they’re putting into practice in terms of community building, leadership, mentorship and working with others will pervade and enrich the entire community.”

The First Class of Cohorts, Back on Campus

By all accounts, this year’s inaugural group of ARC students was exceptional. “They were a diverse, inquisitive, exciting and outgoing group,” said I’Anson. “They were keen to be involved, and interacted well with their lab groups and summer research students. The faculty mentors were really impressed by them. Every single one who had a student said they meshed well with their research team and, in some cases, even upped the ante.”

As the program’s creators hoped, the ARC students returned to campus this fall armed not only with a sense of community, increased knowledge and experience, but also with a powerful sense of ownership of the institution and a quiet confidence as they launched into their college careers.

“My advice to them as they were leaving campus this summer was to return with confidence and feel competent in all the work they had done,” said Hobbs, “but to also come back and be humble because they really have an awesome opportunity to be leaders peer-to-peer on their return, especially during those first weeks of transition.”

And the students have done exactly that. Robert Moore ’20 describes his first week on campus as one in which he was able to assist many of his fellow first-year students by guiding them to the right locations on campus. Another benefit of the program for Moore was the “plethora of insightful information from the professors about how to succeed in their respective fields of study.” He added, “It was very helpful when picking classes and setting a nice foundation in the first two days.”

Jenna Kim ’20 had a similar experience. “The ARC program gave me a preview of what college life is all about,” she said. “I know exactly what classes I need to take to pursue my dreams, and what programs I can look into that will help me get the most out of my college experience. I am able to point other first-years to buildings they are not familiar with, and talk about the clubs and opportunities that are offered here. Most importantly,” she added, “the ARC program has helped me prepare the proper mindset to really enjoy all the classes I choose to take here.”

The ARC program had a significant impact on Sasha Edwards ’20, who says the program made the transition from home to school a smoother one. “When I first arrived back on campus,” she said, “I felt that it was easier to connect with people and trust them because I did it in the five weeks that I was here over the summer.

“Academically,” added Edwards, “the research and seminars helped me to prepare for the classroom atmosphere and adjust to the college work load. Going through the program opened up many doors for me both socially and academically, and I am reaping the benefits of it now.”

The Future of the ARC Program

As the ARC programs creators reflect on this summer’s pilot, they are also looking ahead to ways in which the program might expand. The university has already committed to a second year of the program for summer 2017 and several of this year’s ARC students are considering how they might get involved as upper-division students.

Richmond is excited about what an expanded program could mean from a recruiting standpoint. “The ARC program is something we can advertise and make available to prospective students, just as we do Johnson Opportunity Grants,” she explained. “It’s a chance to reinforce the university’s commitment to an increasingly diverse student body in the STEM area, a division of this institution that is becoming more and more important to prospective students.”

“We are seeing that students are ready and eager — and their families are as well — to have opportunities such as the ARC program,” said Richmond. “So whether it’s in the fine arts or another area, I look forward to seeing where it goes next.”

The program’s original collaborators feel the same way. “My vision for the ARC program is significantly bigger that our current 12 students,” said I’Anson. “First of all, I’d like to see it get much larger in STEM, with more students and more faculty involvement. But ultimately, the program has a lot of potential, not just in STEM, but across campus, and is perfect for the liberal arts.”

“I think the most exciting aspect of this going forward is to think about ways that we can improve it and how we can make this an ongoing part of the Washington and Lee education,” said Conner. “And then, of course, I’m always thinking about how we can grow the program, perhaps through corresponding projects in the humanities and the Williams School, or creating other advanced research cohorts in the creative and performing arts. The sky is the limit for the sorts of things we can do based on this very successful model.”

by Drewry Sackett | dsackett@wlu.edu