LEVERS: Leveraging Engagement and Vision to Encourage Retention in STEM

Project Overview

Leveraging Engagement and Vision to Encourage Retention in STEM (LEVERS) is a five-year, $1.5 million project funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The award was given to Michigan State University (MSU) to improve introductory courses that serve as gateways to continued studies in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In doing so, faculty hope to change the institutional culture around the teaching of STEM, raise student engagement, and increase the number of students graduating with STEM degrees.

Big Ideas

Why do we need LEVERS?

Often, students become disenchanted by typical gateway courses and leave STEM before they can do real scientific practices. Students have stated that introductory courses are passive, the information is delivered without connections or contextualization, and the curricular designs and assessment methods aren’t aligned with their strengths. They also report that the learning environments are unwelcoming and competitive. All of these sources of dissatisfaction greatly impact students’ decisions to stay in or leave STEM programs.

LEVERS is about increasing the persistence and success of these undergraduate science students, especially those from traditionally underrepresented groups. Researchers believe that doing so will strengthen STEM education and research, provide equity in access to and representation in STEM fields, and address emerging workforce needs associated with demographic shifts. But how will researchers accomplish this?

Researchers are focusing on changing what is taught in addition to how it is taught. The classes designed will focus less on facts and more on asking questions, developing models, and engaging in argument from evidence. They will track core ideas across disciplines and incorporate the science practices that students will use in STEM careers. By redesigning these introductory courses in this way, researchers hope to more positively impact students’ sense of community, self-efficacy, and science identity.

Project Goals

The LEVERS project’s framework is based on an engagement-centered model for student success. The rationale for this is that engaged students are successful students. Studies have shown that students who become socially and academically engaged in meaningful educational and enrichment experiences are more likely to persist and succeed.

Students who participate in the reformed STEM gateway courses are expected to achieve the following:

  • Develop foundational understanding of disciplinary core ideas

  • Recognize connections across disciplinary boundaries

  • Develop competency-based science practices

  • Participate in high-impact, high-engagement activities during the gateway experience

  • Improve science self-efficacy and use of self-regulated learning strategies

  • Find the STEM gateway educational experience to be satisfying and develop a commitment to the institution

  • Persist and succeed in the STEM gateway courses

  • Attain a STEM degree


Strategies for Accomplishing Project Goals

The research team has outlined five strategies that will help them reach the goals listed above.

Strategy 1: Establish a Gateway Collaborative of interdisciplinary faculty focused on the gateway experience and on increasing retention and success of STEM students.

This collaborative addresses not only teaching and learning but also other important factors, including student-faculty interaction, academic support, and first year experiences. It also promotes efforts to institutionalize reform and disseminate findings both within the MSU community and nationally. Yearly summits and multi-day workshops include the development and dissemination of materials and feature outside speakers.

Strategy 2: Transform the gateway curriculum by infusing science practices blended with disciplinary core ideas.

This project is expanding reforms in introductory biology laboratories and adding reforms to introductory chemistry and physics laboratories. An interdisciplinary group of faculty led by the Gateway Collaborative is developing common integrated curricular learning goals and measurable learning objectives, and creating and validating assessments for these learning goals and objectives. Instead of focusing on a narrow set of content and on lab skill goals, students are engaged in science practices such as hypothesis formation, experimental design, and data analysis. Students learn to work in cooperative research teams, communicate ideas and results orally and in writing, and make formal presentations of research results.

Strategy 3: Expand academic and social support systems for academically at-risk students and augment efforts to broaden STEM participation.

Project leaders are extending and deepening existing efforts to increase the participation of underrepresented students in the MSU STEM gateway courses through a pre-college, residential bridge program and subsequent residential academic programs, along with curricula aimed at building STEM skills for students with insufficient math preparation. The project will also create programs that provide a structured social and academic support system for academically at-risk first year STEM students to help them adjust to college life. LEVERS has created a common summer bridge program (across colleges) that lasts for 6 weeks during the pre-freshman summer and strengthens the academic skills needed for gateway courses in biology, chemistry, math, and writing. It emphasizes cohort-building, study skills, and seeking support.

Strategy 4: Create an undergraduate learning assistant (ULA) program across the STEM colleges to enhance student engagement.

The program prepares ULAs to work in varied learning environments (large lecture meetings, small lecture meetings, recitations, and reformed laboratory courses that incorporate science practices and inquiry) with diverse groups of students. This model facilitates the adoption of inquiry-driven laboratory reforms and provides the ULAs with a high impact, high engagement experience. Partnership between the College of Natural Science, College of Engineering, Lyman Briggs College, and the College of Education will build on experience with ULA programs at MSU. The program also encourages ULAs to consider continuing their education and pursuing careers as STEM teachers.

Strategy 5: Construct a student monitoring system to track STEM retention and success, and foster continuous institutional improvement.

LEVERS has developed a comprehensive and sustainable institutional STEM student monitoring system to track retention and institutionalize a continuous improvement model for student success. This plan will be used to identify obstacles to student success and to evaluate interventions as part of the continuous improvement model. The system will focus on typical academic outcomes but will also address psychosocial development and student attitudes and behaviors because success depends not only on what happens in the classroom but also on how the student perceives these activities and their purpose. Motivation, self-efficacy, and science identity are important factors in promoting student success at the college level. Student attitudes and satisfaction with the learning environment are also included in the monitoring plan.


Measuring Success

To determine the success of the project, researchers are measuring student retention and success. The team worked with its institutional research office to develop Drop, Fail, Withdrawal (DFW) reports that will be used as one measure of student performance, but they will also examine such things as changes in student participation and self-efficacy.

To measure changes over time in the content, instructional practices, and assessments used in gateway courses across disciplines, the team is using instruments developed by MSU’s AAU STEM Education Initiative team. The Three-dimensional Learning Assessment Protocol (3D-LAP) characterizes the extent to which assessment items evaluate three-dimensional learning, that is, learning that blends disciplinary core ideas, science practices, and crosscutting concepts. The Three-dimensional Learning Observation Protocol (3D-LOP) is designed to evaluate teaching practice by measuring to what extent a typical class meeting incorporates disciplinary core ideas, science practices, and crosscutting concepts. Because the instruments are not discipline-specific, they can provide a more systematic and integrated understanding of course reform efforts.

The team is also keeping a close eye on changes in the institutional culture surrounding STEM education. They are looking for higher levels of collaboration and expect that projects like LEVERS will make it easier to obtain internal funding to continue transformation efforts. Also, some departments that have previously been resistant to change have become important partners in transforming the gateway courses.


Disciplinary Projects under LEVERS

There are five smaller projects under the larger LEVERS projects. The projects are specific to certain disciplines and are described in detail below:

Gateway Collaborative: A group of interdisciplinary faculty will collaborate to improve the STEM gateway experience. The Collaborative will host yearly Gateway summits to facilitate institutional transformation of the gateway curriculum.

  • Project Leader: Project Advisory Board

New Chemistry Laboratory Curriculum: Chemistry faculty will implement and assess the “Cooperative Chemistry Laboratories” as part of the gateway curriculum.

  • Project Leader: Lynmarie Posey, CNS, Chemistry

New Physics Laboratory Curriculum: Faculty will implement the SEI model for course transformation to develop a new gateway physics laboratory curriculum.

  • Project Leader: Danny Caballero, CNS, Physics

New Avida-ED Discovery Based Laboratory Modules: Faculty will develop, implement, and assess new Avida-ED modules that engage students in science practices focused on the ecological, evolutionary, and genetics concepts as part of the gateway reform.

  • Project Leader: Jim Smith, LBC, Biology

New Modeling-Based Calculus Curriculum: Faculty will develop, implement, and assess a calculus curriculum in which students build, analyze, and interpret mathematical models developed using real data for student laboratories.

  • Project Leader: AK Zeleke, LBC, Math


Dissemination Plan

The LEVERS project team will disseminate its products, strategies, and findings both locally and at the national level. Eventually, results will also be presented at national meetings and in peer-reviewed journals.

The primary vehicle for local dissemination is the annual three-day Gateway Summit. There, stakeholders review the project’s progress and assessment results and identify connections with other STEM retention activities on campus. This opportunity allows for refinements of program activities, enhanced collaboration, and a robust shared vision for a vibrant MSU gateway experience. Other avenues of dissemination are regular campus seminars such as the CREATE Science Education Speaker Series and STEM Alliance meetings.

So far, it is too early in the process to publish any results of the work.



The LEVERS project involves personnel from across MSU, including faculty from the College of Natural Science, College of Engineering, College of Education, and Lyman Briggs College. Collaborators also include faculty associated with the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, CREATE for STEM Institute, and the Center for Engineering Education Research.

Project Advisory Committee:

  • Cori Fata-Hartley (PI), College of Natural Science

  • R. Sekhar Chivukula (former PI), College of Natural Science

  • Joe Krajcik (co-PI), CREATE for STEM Institute

  • Robert Pennock (co-PI), BEACON

  • Robert LaDuca (co-PI), Lyman Briggs College

  • Mark Urban-Lurain (former co-PI), CEER

  • Melanie Cooper, College of Natural Science (Chemistry)

  • Diane Ebert-May, College of Natural Science (Biology)

  • Stuart Tessmer, College of Natural Science (Physics)

  • Renee Bayer, CREATE for STEM Institute

Disciplinary Project Leaders

  • Lynmarie Posey, College of Natural Science (Chemistry)

  • Danny Caballero, College of Natural Science (Physics)

  • Jim Smith, Lyman Briggs College, BEACON

  • AK Zeleke, Lyman Briggs College (Math)



The timeline for the project is August 2014 to July 2020.

The Classes

The LEVERS curriculum is getting students more involved during class sessions. Class time is used for problem-solving, group work, and tweaking ideas, while background knowledge is saved for homework in the form of pre-class lectures. Classes are very dynamic, with students learning real-world skills in a collaborative setting modeled after the work that people in STEM careers do.

So far, all of the chemistry labs for non-majors have been redesigned to focus less on procedures and more on problem-solving, small group work, and case work. The physics department is also working to redesign its labs. The biology program is teaching faculty how to use Avida-ED, a dynamic web-based program that helps to understand natural selection and evolution. Finally, Lyman Briggs has revised a calculus course that caters to biology students to be more project-based.

It is too early to know the impact of the course transformations on student learning and success, though data are currently being collected.


The LEVERS project is one of several complementary efforts that together are profoundly changing the conversation about STEM teaching and learning at MSU. The data collected from the STEM Education Alliance meetings and the Gateway Summit have provided valuable insight about these transformation efforts and broader institutional change.

Project leaders have learned that departmental culture is a key factor in transformation of gateway courses. Small groups of individuals have been able to quickly transform courses in some departments. Change has been much slower in other departments in which larger groups of faculty are engaged, but the prospects for sustainability are promising given broad participation.

Recent developments suggest that institutional culture is changing. Departments that have previously been resistant to change have become important partners in STEM education transformation efforts, a good indicator that change is going to happen and that it is going to last.


Links to the Next Generation Science Standards

LEVERS is moving courses away from the traditional lecture-based framework and towards the concept of 3-dimensional learning as described by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). This concept focuses on disciplinary core ideas, science practices, and crosscutting concepts. These three areas are crucial to science learning.  

As states adopt NGSS, more and more students K-12 are being exposed to 3-dimensional learning, project-based learning, and other important STEM concepts and will be used to activity-based rather than lecture-based classes. Another goal of LEVERS is to ensure that students continue to receive that caliber of curriculum and engagement in their college introductory courses.


Connections to other CREATE for STEM projects

LEVERS is closely tied with other efforts at MSU to change the way STEM is taught and learned. MSU has received funding from the Association of American Universities as part of a national STEM initiative. To read more about the AAU Gateways project, please follow this link.

The LEVERS project is one of several CREATE projects working to transform science education at the K-12 level. You can read more about the CREATE mission here. These projects share several common features. Each project has 3-Dimensional Learning as a guiding principle. Each incorporates project-based learning as an instructional strategy. Each project is a collaboration that draws widely for its expertise – between organizations, between disciplines, and between researchers and practitioners.

LEVERS is one of several projects providing models of how to put into practice the vision of science education found in the National Research Council’s Framework for K-12 Science Education and, by extension, the Next Generation Science Standards.  

The Multiple Literacies project is developing and testing curricular materials for grades 3-4 that use science topics to build student competency in Language Arts and mathematics as they learning key concepts in science.

The Interactions project is developing web-based materials for high school students in physical sciences courses that will enable them to develop an understanding of the forces and energy involved in the interactions of atoms and molecules.