For over thirty years, the Academic Excellence (ACE) program has been increasing the diversity of students earning their bachelors degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) at UC Santa Cruz. We advance educational equity by engaging students in active learning, peer mentoring, skill-building, and community development.
ACE offers interactive problem-solving sessions that supplement gateway coursework in math, engineering, physics, biology, and chemistry. These 1.5 hour problem solving sessions occur twice a week for the entire ten week quarter, and attendance is mandatory. Curriculum is designed using evidence-based pedagogy by a team of professional staff (“session leaders”) who team up with student employees (“co-leaders / peer mentors”) to facilitate collaborative learning of challenging course content.
Learning content for a course is only part of what it takes to excel in STEM. At ACE, we design curriculum that also engages students in the skills or practices of science and engineering. When students learn how to think like a scientist or engineer (ie generate hypotheses, articulate scientific arguments, debug code, manipulate graphs, etc.), they are much more likely to succeed on assessments that test critical thinking, as well as become more prepared for authentic STEM research during and after college. In addition, practicing these skills can help students develop a sense of motivation and belonging in their community, ultimately increasing STEM identity. Students who are a part of ACE are encouraged to practice a wide variety of skills (including professional etiquette and social skills) that are not often directly taught in class, thereby increasing their chance of success and also creating a self-awareness of the skills that they aim to learn.
Every week, small groups of 3-5 students meet with an ACE student employee (“co-leader / peer mentor”) for an extra hour to take part in peer mentoring. Peer mentors are previous ACE students who have taken and excelled in the ACE session they are supporting. During mentoring, peer mentors serve as role models for their students, while engaging them in opportunities to explore questions about course content, discuss opportunities for internships and research experience, and navigate the ‘hidden curriculum’ of being a STEM student at a large research university. Peer mentoring sessions are an invaluable component of the ACE program because they engage mentors in a valuable leadership opportunity while cultivating an approachable and non-intimidating atmosphere for students who may need advice and advocacy.
At its heart, ACE is about community. Every component of our program is intended to help build a community of scholars who strive for and commit to academic success. Making sure that our students have a network of peers, mentors, and advocates who they trust is the first priority of the ACE program. We hold events and panels that encourage explicit community building, and our space (including a lounge for undergraduates) is a home away from home for many. Come visit us, you belong here!
Year after year, students who participate in ACE earn a higher proportion of As and Bs and a lower proportion of non-passing grades compared to their peers, and ACE students graduate within STEM fields at a higher rate at UC Santa Cruz. However, the skills students learn at ACE transcend the classroom- we prepare students to think like scientists and engineers, and we empower them with the professional skills to advocate for their future careers. We are the only program at UC Santa Cruz where students receive a professionally designed curriculum aligned with the STEM courses they are currently enrolled in while simultaneously cultivating their membership in the larger STEM community through a cohort-based peer-mentoring model. Many of our alumni go on to pursue careers in medicine, academia, STEM industry, and more, and they often credit ACE as being a formative experience in their career development. Joining ACE can be a life-changing experience; come visit us to learn more!