Tiffany Lee, October 12, 2022
NSF grant expands efforts to retain underrepresented STEM students
With a grant from the National Science Foundation, a Husker research team is expanding a program aimed at helping STEM students from underrepresented backgrounds succeed academically, professionally and personally as they progress through the first two years of their college careers.
With a five-year, $999,125 award from NSF, University of Nebraska–Lincoln researchers Kristi Montooth, Marianna Burks and Patricia Wonch Hill are bolstering a program they launched two years ago that provides mentored research opportunities and resources to STEM undergraduates from backgrounds that have been marginalized and remain underrepresented in STEM fields. The program aims to help students overcome the unique set of hurdles they often face as they launch college careers and improve their university experience.
The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these difficulties and underscored the need for a scaled-up program: Though students underrepresented in STEM have long had lower first-year retention rates compared to other students, the pandemic widened the gap. For all students who started at Nebraska in fall 2020, the retention rate decreased by 5%. For first-generation, Pell-eligible and underrepresented students, rates decreased by 8.5%, 7% and 9.7%.
The initiative, called the STEM-POWER Research Program, is designed to curb these trends. “POWER” stands for empowering students with purpose, ownership and well-being through engagement in mentored research relationships. The program will provide nearly 40 undergraduate students with paid research experiences in the life sciences, which is a data-backed approach for retaining students in STEM majors. It will also provide professional development opportunities, a sense of community, mentoring and one-to-one connections that are crucial to helping these students succeed in college.
“Our approach fits very well with our motto at UNL that ‘every person and every interaction matters,’” said Montooth, Susan J. Rosowski Associate Professor of biological sciences. “We make sure that individual people are interacting with our student research scholars, because individual interactions create an accountability from both ends.”
Beyond academic mentoring, the one-on-one connections are fostered through lunches, book clubs, professional development activities, shared study spaces and more. Facilitating relationship development for these students is critical to ensuring inevitable bumps in the road don’t lead to withdrawal from STEM majors.
“When you come from a privileged background, you can feel like you can go ask anyone for help,” Montooth said. “When you don’t come from that background, you may feel unsure about reaching out to a professor for help. We want to make sure that everybody who needs help has a professor and a community to go to.”
So far, research on the program, which began in summer 2021 with funding from the School of Biological Sciences, indicates that the program’s relationship-building efforts are having the biggest impact. Burks and Montooth said the students’ relationships with faculty and each other have served as a buffer to the ups and downs of college life.
“Being intentional about how we form our community has been the most important aspect of what we’ve seen on the qualitative side,” said Burks, a biology instructor and science specialist for Nebraska’s TRIO Scholars Program. “It has made a serious impact.”
The new infusion of NSF funding will enable the program to grow beyond its original scope, which focused primarily on bridging students’ transition from high school to college by funding research experiences during the summer in between. With this grant, students will receive additional funding, mentorship and support for the summer after their first year and throughout the second academic year.
This expansion will fill a critical gap: Although Nebraska offers one of the nation’s most expansive menus of undergraduate research experiences — most notably through its First Year Research Experience and Undergraduate Creative Activities and Research Experience programs — there is a gap in coverage for second-year STEM students. The limited opportunity at this level is problematic because this is a time period when many STEM students encounter obstacles in 100- and 200-level classes or issues with school-work-life balance that may cause them to leave a STEM major.
“That second year is where they need more support,” Burks said. “They don’t feel ready for UCARE, but they still want to do research. And they’re also concerned about balancing academics and keeping their GPAs high at the same time.”
The program is also expanding its recruitment base. To this point, the team has recruited Lincoln-based students from the Upward Bound Math-Science program, which boosts the STEM skills of students from low-income families. The first NSF-supported cohort, which will begin the program in summer 2023, will also include students recruited from the Nebraska College Preparatory Academy, which serves students from Omaha and Grand Island. NSF funding will help these students get settled in Lincoln the summer before their first year at the university.
The grant will also support hands-on training for graduate students who are interested in broadening participation in science. They will serve as summer research assistants who support program activities. In addition, previous undergraduates from the program will help mentor incoming students.
The program was designed with an eye toward longevity. Its title builds on the university’s Husker Student POWER program, which focuses on new students’ institutional belonging and academic skills. Eventually, the researchers would like to see STEM-POWER institutionalized and available to engage all students from all disciplines in mentored research relationships.