Here at the University of Michigan, and at every college across the country, about 50% of the students who enter planning to major in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) leave that area to major in social sciences or humanities. Many jobs of the future will require STEM backgrounds, so figuring out how to retain more aspiring STEM majors is a concern for all of us.

One attempt to keep more students in STEM areas involves integrating writing into large gateway science courses, specifically introductory chemistry and physics, two courses required for nearly all STEM majors. Operating from the assumption that writing about key concepts will enhance learning in gateway courses, and from the assumption that this form of writing to learn will be especially effective for underrepresented populations such as women and members of minority groups, Sweetland Director Anne Gere and Ginger Schultz from the Department of Chemistry are collaborating on Digital Writing to Learn Introductory Chemistry and Physics. Funded by the University’s Transforming Learning for a Third Century program, this project explores whether and how the infusion of writing contributes to student engagement in these gateway science courses.

The first phase of the project focused on developing writing prompts about key concepts in both chemistry and physics. These prompts are circulated by an electronic peer review system that requires students to read and give feedback on one another’s written responses to the prompts. This process of writing and providing comments on the writing of others can enable students to develop a more in-depth understanding of the material they are studying. Preliminary results indicate that the “grade penalty,” the difference between a student’s total GPA and the grade in a science course, is reduced for female students who write in response to prompts.

Plans for the future include refining the prompts, adjusting the electronic peer review system to be more user friendly, and expanding the project so that all students in large introductory chemistry and physics courses can participate in the Digital Writing project.