AMHERST, Mass. – Two longtime advocates of broadening science education, University of Massachusetts Amherst biologist Margaret “Peg” Riley and professor of education Elizabeth “Betsy” McEneaney, have received a three-year, $987,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to continue their efforts to increase student participation and success in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers and research.
The grant is aimed at drawing in young people from underrepresented groups in STEM including students of color, first-generation college students and those who are eligible for Pell grants and who may not see themselves as future scientists.
As the lead researcher of the campus’s STEM Ambassadors Program (STEM AP), Riley says, “Running through my whole career is the belief that science is going to change the world, and finding ways to make science more approachable at every level is, for me, what it’s all about. I want more people to feel they get science. Everyone is a scientist, they just don’t think of themselves that way. If STEM AP can help young people realize they already are scientists, they can advance and succeed in changing the world.”
As part of the new grant, the STEM AP director Carolyn Gardner says they plan to partner with Holyoke Community College and UMass Boston, a commuter campus, to develop and test two additional models of the program. STEM AP offers mentoring and early research opportunities through authentic research in mentored labs and course-based undergraduate research experiences as a part of the planning for student success.
Riley and Gardner say the new program builds on their earlier STEM retention project, started in 2014 with a grant of $825,000 awarded by the UMass President’s Office to help students “build a science identity and stay in STEM fields,” Riley notes. “This new grant is going to let us take our existing program in important new directions.”
She adds, “We lose 50 percent of STEM students before they graduate, and that rate is particularly severe for under-represented students. They are far more likely than other STEM students to never have a laboratory research experience as undergraduates, for example. Everyone in higher education is concerned about this.”
Gardner says that diversifying the workforce and addressing the shortage of workers who can take good science jobs is important not only for individuals but for society. “If my community is not a part of the conversation in science, we are vulnerable to exploitation,” she notes. “If we are not involved in STEM careers, we’re getting left further behind, and the already persistent income opportunities gap continues to widen. We know that STEM careers are avenues to begin to address this gap. We also want to stop talented people from being left behind.”
The UMass Amherst STEM AP program invites first-year students from these groups to apply each fall and typically accepts 35 or 40 students, a number that grows each year, Gardner says. Riley and her team have built in multiple layers of support to create what they refer to as a “mentoring web” for students. First-year students become part of a research team that includes graduate student mentors, and they will in time become mentors for middle school students in the Holyoke Public Schools.
Among other skills, first-year students learn to read peer-reviewed research articles and literature reviews. In the second year, they are mentored by STEM faculty and graduate students in research labs. Riley says, “We know that getting into a lab can almost predict success in STEM. We prepare this person in every way we know how.”
Those who want a summer laboratory research experience can vie for one of five or six slots available through STEM AP’s summer research program. If chosen, they receive lodging, meals, a stipend and research supplies. In their third year, STEM AP students continue in their lab, move on to another with good recommendations and laboratory skills or opt for other STEM career goals such as STEM education.
“Retention is improving every year,” says Riley. “This program will help us to inform STEM researchers that inclusive practices are important and that it’s not that hard to do. Our faculty like this program because students come to them prepared. They know how to read research, work in a lab and where to turn for problem-solving.”
The STEM AP team also includes Ph.D. student and education researcher Ally Hunter, who will lead a study to evaluate students’ academic success and identify cognitive, contextual and cultural variables that affect them. Hunter will follow STEM AP students and a control group who were invited to apply but did not choose to participate during their campus careers and beyond.
The longitudinal study will attempt to explain three interrelated aspects of career development: how basic academic and career interests develop, how students make educational and career choices and how they reach academic and career success.Hunter says, “We’ll look at context and environment and ask what things are important for predicting success.This model can help us discoverwhat works.We already have some ideas; we know students seek to belong to a community that reflects their own identities, and we believe an early research experience is important, as well.”
She adds, “Lack of diversity in STEM has been couched as a problem that needs to be solved. I take the positive worldview that diversity is crucial in STEM because science is problem solving, and that requires a diverse approach and diverse thinking. Our students don’t check their identities at the door when they step on campus. We’re doing this because we are in the fight to increase diversity and to change the conversation about diversity in STEM so the research community sees its value and positive impacts.”
As they gain experience with mentoring webs and receive preliminary study results, the STEM AP team plans to adapt the program to fit Holyoke Community College and UMass Boston’s needs. Riley notes, “Over time we’ve learned that many of our STEM AP students want to give back. They realize they want to teach, so we’re in the process of creating a partnership with the College of Education, led by Betsy McEneaney. We’re showing that we are really putting a scientist and an educator together in many of our students, which is an unexpected but welcome development.”