Introduction to PEERS
The number of STEM majors as an overall percentage of the undergraduate population has fallen substantially over the last several decades (National Board of Sciences 2010). A major factor driving this decline is the failure of entering STEM majors to complete their degrees. Nationwide, six-year degree completion rates in STEM majors are less than 40% (PCAST 2012), raising concerns for the ability for U.S. to maintain its competitiveness in science and technology fields (Hira, 2010). Low rates of STEM persistence are particularly troubling among women and underrepresented minority students (URM students include African American, Latino/a, Native American, and Pacific Islander). While women and URM students account for nearly 70% of college enrollment, they are underrepresented among STEM degree holders because they leave STEM majors at substantially higher rates than their non-URM male peers (PCAST 2012).
URM students entering U.S. colleges are just as likely as their non-URM peers to aspire to complete a STEM major (Crisp et al., 2009; Koenig 2009; Hurtado et al., 2010). Yet in 2009, 37.5% of White and Asian American students completed their STEM degrees after five years, while the average completion rates for Black/African American, Latino/a, and Native American students were 22.1%, 18.4% and 18.8% respectively (Hurtado et al. 2010). This persistence gap results in fewer URM students entering the STEM workforce. Currently, Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans account for only 7.1% of the biological, biomedical and life science workforce despite accounting for 27.9% of the total U.S. population (NAS, 2011; NSF 2012, Table 96).
The PEERS Program
The PEERS program at UCLA was established in 2003 to address the discrepancy between success and persistence of life and physical science majors from underrepresented backgrounds. Based on research related to students’ first-year experience (Barefoot 2000; Reason et al. 2006; Tinto 2005), programmatic elements include: (1) academic and career seminars, (2) holistic academic counseling, (3) research seminars, and (4) Treisman (1992) style collaborative learning workshops for the first year of math, chemistry and physics courses. Combined, these activities provide students with encouragement, academic preparation, and positive peer group motivation, factors each shown to encourage persistence in science and math majors (Barlow and Villarejo 2004; Bonous-Hammarth 2000; Chang et al. 2011; Peterfreund et al. 2007; Walton and Cohen, 2011). Additionally, PEERS socializes students to the roles and expectations of the institution and their academic major, factors that are also positively correlated with persistence (Chang et al. 2008).
Toven-Lindsey, B., Levi-Fitzgerald, M., Barber, P. and T. Hasson (2015) Increasing persistence of undergraduate science majors: A model for institutional support of underrepresented students. CBE – Life Sci. Educ. 14: 1-12.