dream stem project
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Caesar R. Jackson, Professor of Physics explores the DREAM STEM Project at North Carolina Central University, which includes retaining science, technology, engineering and mathematics talent in the U.S.

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) educated graduates often become substantive contributors to the economic vitality of the nation and reap higher economic benefits during their careers, yet there are persistent challenges in producing and retaining STEM talent in the United States (U.S.) to meet the future science and engineering workforce demands.

As the U.S. population shifts toward an increasingly multiracial society, the current racial/ethnic gap in science degree production from institutions of higher education forecasts a severe shortage of diverse scientific workers. Although about 28% of all U.S. college students select a STEM major, more than half switch to a non-STEM field or leave postsecondary education without earning any credentials. This departure rate is even higher for individuals from groups underrepresented in STEM, including African Americans.

Historically, black colleges and universities (HBCUs) play a significant role in producing African American scientists. HBCUs were established with the deliberate purpose of serving African Americans and these institutions, despite categorically being underfunded and lacking sufficient resources, serve and are effective in educating more low-income, first-generation students than all other institutions of higher education. Even though HBCUs constitute only 3% of the postsecondary institutions in the U.S., they award 17% of all of STEM baccalaureate degrees earned by African Americans and 24% of the African Americans who earned a doctorate in science and/or engineering received their bachelor’s degree from an HBCU.

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), initiated the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program (HBCU-UP) to assist HBCUs to more fully realise their promise as major contributors to the nation’s STEM degree completion goals. The grants awarded from the HBCU-UP are administered by NSF’s Division of Human Resource Development within in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources. North Carolina Central University (NCCU), an HBCU located in Durham, North Carolina, was awarded funding from HBCU-UP in 2012 and the DREAM STEM Project was launched at the university.

DREAM STEM – “Driving Research, Entrepreneurship, and Academics through Mastering STEM” – has as major goals, to increase enrolment and retention in STEM degree programmes at NCCU, to increase persistence and graduation rates in STEM and to produce highly-skilled STEM graduates who can create and innovate. The strategic components of DREAM STEM comprise:

  1. Entrepreneurship in science education;
  2. Development of students’ identity as scientists and;
  3. Faculty development through teaching and learning research innovation mini-grants.

The entrepreneurship in science education component stimulates entrepreneurial thinking in science students by exercising their creative design abilities, helping them to actualise their intellectual and knowledge potential and demonstrating how to realise and capitalise on opportunities. Students are guided through the research and development (R&D) portion of the science and engineering entrepreneurship cycle where they conceptualise creative solutions to realistic problems and engage in the hands-on design of their innovations. Development of students’ innovation design skills is complemented with entrepreneurial thinking training on how to carry out market analysis, identify financing sources to fund their product and protect their intellectual property.

Students’ entrepreneurial training culminates with their presentation of a business pitch and demonstration of their product prototype to a public audience. Students’ self-belief increased significantly after participating in DREAM STEM entrepreneurial training and students felt more confident in their ability to apply scientific knowledge to develop products and processes, turn ideas into feasible business opportunities, develop a product plan, conduct market analysis and make strong presentations.

Student’s science identity development is thought to derive from three overlapping constructs: Performance, competence and recognition. The DREAM STEM Project accentuates students’ science identity through earned academic scholarships, honours and awards (Performance); participation in undergraduate research experiences (Competence); and exposure and recognition in attending and presenting their work at national professional meetings (Recognition).

It was observed that DREAM STEM students felt a strong sense of belonging (i.e., fitting in) while feeling honoured and affirmed for being one’s distinct self (i.e., standing out) and subsequently they expressed greater STEM identification and demonstrated significantly higher academic performance in STEM degree programmes.

The DREAM STEM Project promotes the scholarship of teaching and learning through mini-grant funding awarded to committed STEM faculty who implemented and assessed new and promising pedagogical strategies that stimulated students’ active engagement in learning science and mathematics subjects. Gains in students’ STEM learning were greatest in STEM courses that included active learning approaches in lecture sessions along with guided inquiry approaches in the associated laboratory sessions of the course.

In addition, investigation of self-regulated learning behaviours of students in STEM courses at NCCU revealed that self-efficacy for STEM learning & performance had a significant effect on student’s effort regulation and self-efficacy was the greatest predictor of the end-of-course grades. Students who exhibited higher academic achievement also exhibited higher self-efficacy, higher effort regulation and higher task value.

Overall outcomes of the NSF-funded DREAM STEM Project at NCCU include higher enrolment and significantly higher retention, persistence and graduation rates in STEM degree programmes for African Americans students. Physics enrolment increased by 82% as a result of a newly created 3-plus-2 dual degree Physics/Engineering program. The first-year retention for DREAM STEM students was 97% compared to 57% for the general STEM population of students. DREAM STEM students persisted in their degree programme to the third year at a rate of 92% compared to 36% for general STEM population and the five-year graduation rate for DREAM STEM students was 80% compared to 30% for the general STEM population.

As a result of the DREAM STEM Project, average degree production increased in Chemistry by 69%, Mathematics by 50% and Physics by 88%. During the grant period from 2012 to 2018, thirty-two (32) DREAM STEM participants completed STEM degrees with 38% in Physics, 25% in Biology, 19% in Mathematics and 13% in Chemistry. The demographics of the DREAM STEM graduates were: 72% African American, 4% White, 6% Hispanic, 3% Asian and 6% two or more races; and 53% were male and 47% were female. DREAM STEM graduates went on to pursue STEM masters and PhD degrees, to become commissioned military officers deployed on technical assignments and to gain employment in high-tech industry jobs.


Please note: This is a commercial profile

Caesar R. Jackson

Professor of Physics

North Carolina Central University (NCCU)

Tel: +1 919 530 5583




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