The shortage of skilled workers in scientific and technical occupations is immense. And yet, up to 50 per cent of new students in the subjects of physics, mathematics, computer science and engineering drop out within the first three semesters of their study programme. Ulm University aims to tackle this issue with the project "PASST! Passgenau studieren in Ulm" ("It FITS! Custom-fit Studying in Ulm"), offering customised support to beginning students.
The Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Science, Research and the Arts (Ministerium für Wissenschaft, Forschung und Kunst; MWK) has now approved a further 615,000 euros in funding for the PASST! programme. Since 2016, Ulm University has been addressing the issue of dropout prevention by supporting students during a highly critical phase, the first two semesters of their studies. The customised offers, ranging from tutoring sessions to project work, are tailored to the respective subject and its learning culture, as well as to the individual knowledge the participants bring with them to the University. The initiators are not only targeting the typical first-semester students who come to the University directly after finishing their A levels.
The programme is also intended to support students with non-conventional educational biographies, family commitments or immigrant backgrounds. During the second PASST! funding phase starting in 2019, the organisers aim to stabilise and expand on the current successful offers. One such offer is currently available to students in the subjects of mathematics and chemistry. Here, seminar and practice groups have proven to be valuable when formed according to skill level. On the basis of an ungraded online aptitude test, students are assigned to a small group according to their current level of knowledge. Further aspects of the programme include advising sessions and online tutorials on topics such as learning strategies. This offer is currently being streamlined and will soon be available to students of physics and biology as well. "Small groups provide the ideal setting in which to support students in accordance with their current levels. In creating small groups, we aim to challenge students at precisely the level required to hold their interest", explains Dr Tatjana Spaeth from the Centre for Teaching Development at Ulm University. The Centre for Teaching Development is responsible for the educational and organisational aspects of the programme.
Orientation offers within the PASST! programme have proven valuable as well, on topics ranging from learning and subject culture to professional opportunities later on. Particularly during the first few semesters, which are typically quite heavy on theory, it can be easy to lose sight of career aspirations, with potentially negative effects on student motivation. As part of the PASST! project, future academics are confronted with realistic problems from the working world. Future electrical engineers, for example, have the opportunity to build prototypes, while economics students can test themselves in the company planning game. Other offers include lectures in which graduates report on subject-specific aspects of their daily work. In the future, orientation activities like these will play an even stronger role in undergraduate lectures. "When it comes to practical tasks, we deliberately subject students of lower semesters to topics that they will not yet fully understand. During the first funding phase of PASST!, we learned that early confrontation with practical tasks is highly motivating for students. It helps them to better understand the significance of theoretical content for their professional future", says Professor Hermann Schumacher, spokesperson for the PASST! project in the Electrical Engineering Department.
Above all, the PASST! project is intended to support and challenge students in accordance with their individual needs. The aim is for students to learn actively and on their own initiative, enabling them to master the transition to the university, and later to the professional world. "Ulm University is enriched by the increasingly diverse educational backgrounds of our students. However, this diversity also presents instructors with the challenge of supporting first-year students according to their levels, their goals and their respective learning and subject cultures. The PASST! project, with its customised offers, is an important building block in this process. That's why it is fantastic news that the MWK is providing further funding for the project", says Professor Olga Pollatos, vice president for teaching at Ulm University.