An evaluation of an interdisciplinary science course designed to help at-risk students

Erica Nicole O'Neal, University of Pennsylvania


This report describes an evaluation of the new interdisciplinary science course that is part of the Prefreshman Program at the University of Pennsylvania. The objective of this course is to help the most at-risk entering freshmen who desire to major in science or engineering to be more academically prepared for the rigors of college course work. The course was offered for the first time in August, 1993 to 42 students. These students met one of the following criteria: (1) regularly admitted matriculants with a predictive index (PI) less than or equal to 2.4, indicating they are at high academic risk; (2) Philadelphia residents with a PI less than or equal to 2.7; and (3) special admission students who are at risk and who may be admitted on account of special interests including socioeconomic reasons, being faculty/staff children or first-generation college attendees, diversity reasons, or other academic concerns. Mathematics, chemistry, and physics were integrated to show the interrelatedness of the disciplines while at the same time teaching fundamental problem-solving skills necessary for all mathematics and science courses at the University. After observing the course daily during August 1993, to understand the content, methodologies, and interactions of the faculty and students, two comparison groups were created for the study. The first comparison group, identified as group 2, consisted of 296 students who had declined the invitation to attend the program, but were selected with the same criteria as the attendees, i.e. they had the lowest predictive indices upon matriculating at the University. To control for the self-selection process to attend or not to attend, a second comparison group (group 3) of 975 students was created. These students were not invited to attend the Prefreshman program because they barely missed the cutoff point for selection. Their predictive indices were among the lowest of the entering freshman ("C" range), although not as low as those of the invitees. This study compared enrollment rates in calculus for both semesters of the freshman year, group mean GPAs in mathematics each semester, and cumulative GPAs at the end of the year. In addition, interviews were conducted with four students from each group throughout the year. The interviews solicited information on study habits, specific comments on their mathematics and science courses, and general comments about the University of Pennsylvania. Enrollment rates in entry-level mathematics courses were higher for program attendees that for the comparison groups, but their successful course completion rates were lower. Both group 1, the program invitees, and comparison group 2 lagged slightly behind group 3 in academic performance the entire year. It was discovered through the interview data that program attendees used academic support services more often than students in the comparison groups and were much more inclined to attend their professors' and TAs' office hours for help. They preferred collaborative learning as opposed to individualistic approaches to their math and science work. These same students also preferred studying in the shared workspaces compared to students in the comparison groups who preferred studying in their dorms. (Abstract shortened by UMI.)

Subject Area

Science education|Higher education|Mathematics education

Recommended Citation

O'Neal, Erica Nicole, "An evaluation of an interdisciplinary science course designed to help at-risk students" (1995). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9543130.