As a shortage of well-educated STEM workers in the US threatens the nation’s competitiveness in the global economy, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is researching ways to increase retention and graduation rates of STEM majors.
The million dollar grant from the NSF’s S-STEM program will give 31 students a full-tuition scholarship for up to 6 semesters, an allowance for books and supplies and funding for research and travel to present the results. The professors who are running the program said that all the NSF asks for in return are some surveys and video recordings of their meetings.
Research published by the US Department of Education in 2015 on a nationally representative sample of 15,000 students, tracked since the 10th grade in 2002, found that graduation rates were only 14% for students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds, compared to 60% for students from high SES backgrounds.
Even when looking only at students who scored in the top quartile in math, only 41% of these academically talented students from low-SES backgrounds graduated from college, compared to 74% of students from high-SES backgrounds who also scored in the top quartile in math.
There is good news – mounting evidence about the positive effects of mentoring suggests that improving mentoring styles could dramatically bolster graduation rates.
Geoff Zahn, an assistant professor of mycology, who was the leading professor in writing the grant, said the literature points to something called teacher immediacy, which is the connection that students feel with their mentor, as an important mentoring strategy that he would expect to see in the results of the NSF research.
Zahn also teaches a class that serves as an orientation to the S-STEM program at UVU. In that class, incoming students hear presentations from different professors and choose several labs of interest to do rotations with before choosing the one that most closely matches their research interests.
Holly Thelin, a sophomore biology student in the first cohort, said through the rotations she has learned many important protocols and procedures which are the basis of much of the contemporary biological research. During those first weeks in the program, she said she felt like an imposter, but she learned in Zahn’s orientation class that a lot of qualified people feel that way.
“At first I thought ‘I’m never gonna get that scholarship’, but I then I thought ‘why not try’… ever since I was little, I’ve always had this love for animals and I want to get my master’s in zoology,” said Thelin. “I might not know that much right now but I have a dedication to learn.”
Thelin, who is now in her second semester in the program, said that she has already chosen the research mentor who she will spend the rest of her time at UVU working with. With their chosen professors, UVU’s NSF scholars will help design and carry out scientific research from the ground up, then travel to present their results to the scientific community.
With such a big task at hand, the orientation class serves as extra support to help them along the way, while weaving in as much practical knowledge for success as possible.
“We have three meetings a week with our team and we learn really relevant stuff on how to survive in the science world and have a career, how to network, presenting at scientific conferences, experimental design, just really relevant stuff that I had never learned before,” said Thelin. “We even Skyped a PhD student and got to ask her about grad school and choosing a lab, which was really helpful.”
To be eligible to apply for the Biology S-STEM program starting Fall 2020 students must have: earned 60 or fewer credit hours at the time of application and have at least 2 years left to graduate, have unmet financial need, be a U.S. Citizen, foreign national, or refugee, be a declared Biology, Botany, or Biotechnology major, and have a minimum 3.0 GPA, according to the biology department S-STEM scholarship webpage.
The deadline to apply is March 1, 2020. More information can be found at the Biology department page.
The Physics, Chemistry and Earth Sciences Departments also have a S-STEM scholarship with the same perks and purpose.