Network Spotlight: STEM Core Alliance Highlights Partnerships Leading to Student’s College Success

By Evangeline Ambat posted 07-20-2020 10:03 AM


Written by Anne PalmerEd.D., Stanford University, Executive Director Stanford Educational Leadership Initiative, STEM Core Alliance Director of Faculty Development. 

The STEM Core Alliance is an NSF-supported Alliance of 25 U.S. community colleges dedicated to broadening participation from people in groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM academic pathways and careers.  


When Shadi Elaridi was in fourth grade, his family moved from California to Qatar and then Lebanon, where he became captivated by robotics competitions. The Elardis returned to California for his senior year at John F. Kennedy High School in Fremont, and while Shadi had always seen himself going into science or engineering, some math concepts still eluded him. Like many mathematically under-prepared students he could easily have been advised against pursuing college calculus, which would have undermined his goal of studying a STEM discipline.  

Instead, thanks to a culture of supported learning at Fremont’s Ohlone College and its partnership with STEM Core’s college math improvement initiativeShadi was able to advance from remedial community college mathematics classes to acceptance to Stanford School of Engineering as a third-year transfer student.  

Ohlone, Shadi had paid internships through STEM Core at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory (SLAC), U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science laboratory operated by Stanford University, and NASA’s Johnson Space CenterShadi also received the college’s Mathematics Student of the Year award in May 2020, demonstrating that with the right learning supports and instructional strategies in place, all students have the ability to succeed, even excel, in mathematics.  

STEM Core Alliance 

STEM Core strives to change the perception, still pervasive in higher education and beyond, that STEM disciplines require innate ability for students to succeed. It’s a misperception that has disproportionately discouraged women and underrepresented minority learners from achieving in STEM. 

Shadi Elaridi is one of 1,700 students across the United States who have enrolled in STEM Core, which was envisioned by the San Francisco non-profit organization Growth Sector and is supported by NSF INCLUDES. Saddleback College Chemistry Professor Jim Zoval is the project’s principal investigator; Growth Sector is the STEM Core Alliance backbone organization; and Kea Anderson of SRI Education serves as the project’s lead evaluatorThe Stanford Graduate School of Education guides faculty professional development for the STEM Core Alliance, which currently includes colleges in California, Colorado, Maryland, New Mexico, and Washington State. 

STEM Core’s foundational principles are based on Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck’s simple but groundbreaking concept of mindset as a dramatic influence on students’ ability to learn. Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE) professor Jo Boaler has built on the mindset concept, informing STEM Core’s approach to advising community college faculty on replacing rote learning in math with developing students’ positive mathematical mindsets through rich mathematical activitiesOffering faculty new perspectives on student potential for learning math, is the way to address institutional bias that prevents so many community college students from going on to earn four-year degrees [in STEM],” says David Gruber, Growth Sector co-founder and creator of the STEM Core Alliance.  

Math Faculty Professional Development 

Because mathematics is traditionally taught sequentially, placing community college students like Shadi in lower-level courses can have a negative impact on their progress, prolonging their studies and discouraging the completion of their math requirements. 

STEM Core faculty and support staff learn new teaching methods that are quite different from the “drill-and-skill’’ technique that traditionally dominates K-12 math instruction. The STEM Core model accelerates the teaching of foundational skills so that community college students are prepared for advanced level calculus in two semesters. In the summer and fall of 2020, 42 teachers at STEM Core Alliance partner colleges that are developing a community of practice within community college math departments will hold real-time virtual sessions with their colleagues to apply what they have learned in professor Jo Boaler’s online course, How to Learn Math for Teachers.  

Through STEM Core, Ohlone professor Jeff O’Connell taught Shadi through the developmental sequence of Algebra 2, Pre-calculus, Calculus and Differential Equations. Research shows that accelerated strategies such as this are effective in rapidly taking community college students from lower level math concepts to the advanced math learning that is necessary for STEM success. “If you graduate high school without completing calculus, you’re going to need a leg up,” says O’Connell, who views Shadi as the beneficiary of educators having and teaching a growth mindset.  

Having O’Connell know his name from his first day in math class made STEM Core math more engaging for Shadi.  The two met during Shadi’s first visit to Stanford, as O’Connell was a Stanford Ignited Teacher Fellow in the Dynamic Design Lab when Shadi was interning at SLACYou think of professors always teaching, never as the ones you see learning in a lab like that,” he says of O’Connell. I wrote about seeing him engage with other aspects of industry and doing hands-on research in my admissions essay to Stanford. 

Employer Partnership Impacts 

b2.pngResearch supports a connection between internships and STEM participation and retention, and STEM Core model implementers believe internship experiences are critical to building a STEM pipeline. In addition to helping Ohlone students in the STEM Core cohort follow through on assignments, arranging visits to companies like Tesla that hire future engineers, and leading resume-writing workshops, Marina Gonzalez, Ohlone’s STEM Core student support specialistworks with employers to host and mentor student interns with math and technical skills.  

Over the last five summers, Gonzalez helped to arrange 26 student internships at SLACincluding Shadi’s. Other current internship partners include Lawrence Livermore National Labs and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with many more partners becoming involved every year. 

Forty-five students participated in Shadi’s STEM Core cohort (the Ohlone Math Gateway, or OMG) in 2019Of OMG students who started the STEM Core program with Algebra 2 from spring semester 2015 to spring semester 2019, 64% completedcalculus within one year compared with only 16% percent of students statewide making equal progress. This data, gathered by Ohlone College and being analyzed at Stanford, will be presented this November at the national conference of the American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges (AMATYC). 

“I was always OK at math, but now I realize math is the basis of everything a STEM student goes through,” Shadi said. With a solid foundation in math thanks to STEM Core, his plan for Stanford is to major in mechanical engineering and combine design with entrepreneurial skills.