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UTA educator awarded grant to focus on community college transfer students in STEM fields

Thursday, May 18, 2017 • Media Contact: Herb Booth

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Yi “Leaf” Zhang, an assistant professor in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Arlington, is the recipient of a National Science Foundation CAREER grant to help community college transfer students more easily and quickly attain degrees in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM fields.

Yi "Leaf" Zhang

Yi "Leaf" Zhang

It is the first NSF CAREER grant awarded to UTA’s College of Education. Zhang’s award is the only CAREER award for a Texas researcher funded by the NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education.

Zhang’s successful submission reached the top of more than 100 CAREER proposals in her category, which involved broadening participation in STEM. Click here to watch Zhang discuss her research.

The NSF’s Faculty Early CAREER Development Program is committed to promoting the role of teacher-scholars and offers the foundation’s most prestigious awards. It supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research.

Zhang’s award for the project, titled “CAREER: Understanding Community College Transfer Students' STEM Choice, Performance, Persistence, and STEM Baccalaureate Degree Attainment: A Typological Analysis,” is expected to total $452,257 during the next five years.

Zhang’s proposed research for examining pitfalls to retaining STEM students transitioning from two-year to four-year schools was of special interest to NSF reviewers who are aware of prior research that indicates transitions are a significant obstacle to the future STEM workforce and to maintain the STEM pipeline.

“Through this project, I hope to develop a community college transfer student typology or definition of distinct subgroups,” Zhang said. “From there, I’ll discover the relationships between reference group membership and transfer students’ STEM choice, performance, persistence and STEM baccalaureate degree attainment.”

Zhang also plans to provide a better understanding of how transfer students in each reference group navigate their way to college and STEM success, including the unique challenges that they encounter, strategies that they have applied and policies and practices that can best satisfy their needs for achievement.

“The findings of the research project can lead to development and implication of tailored support for transfer students,” Zhang said. “There are many, many stories and underlying backgrounds for these transfer students. We believe the findings can also suggest effective intervention and prevention programs to help transfer students avoid taking missteps and wrong turns as they progress to obtaining baccalaureate degrees in STEM fields of study.”

The research is tightly aligned with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board’s ambitious 60x30TX plan, which aims to prepare 60 percent of its 25- to 34-year-old workforce to have postsecondary credentials. It also supports UTA’s initiatives to build a supportive environment where all students can flourish as scholars and citizens.

Zhang said past research has been limited to understanding factors that hinder or support students’ STEM choice, performance, persistence and timely degree completion in four-year universities. However, much of the past research focused on students’ socio-demographic variables and how these variables predict students’ desired outcomes of college.

“These studies only enable researchers to identify which gender group, social class or race and ethnicity has a higher likelihood of outperforming the others in STEM education, but fail to address what underlying factors contribute to such a phenomenon,” Zhang said. “These studies lead to minimal implications for higher education institutions, which seek to cultivate a successful STEM environment on campus, particularly for a growing body of transfer students.”

She said rather than analyzing which socio-demographic group is more likely to pursue STEM studies or graduate with a STEM degree, there is a need to identify underlying factors that contribute to the desired outcomes in STEM education, which is the major contribution of the proposed study.

The award helps further UTA’s Strategic Plan Bold Solutions | Global Impact, especially in the areas of data-driven discovery and improving health and the human condition.

“This research will identify the challenges experienced by many community college transfer students who are focusing on STEM fields,” said Teresa Taber Doughty, UTA College of Education dean and professor. “We anticipate that the findings will directly inform our ability to decrease degree challenges while increasing college degree completion rates for these students. The overall impact could be tremendous for higher education.”

Casey Brown, professor and interim chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, said the faculty members in the department are extremely proud of Zhang’s accomplishment.

“Dr. Zhang works tirelessly to fulfill her research agenda and we are thrilled that NSF has honored her work,” Brown said.

Before coming to UTA, Zhang served as a postdoctoral fellow at Iowa State University. Her research focuses on college access, student mobility and student success, particularly in a community college context. She has published articles in a number of journals including Community College Review, Community College Journal of Research and Practice, and Journal of Applied Research in the Community College. Dr. Zhang has taught at UTA since 2012.