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Husker research team is expanding a program aimed at helping STEM students from underrepresented backgrounds succeed academically

LINCOLN, Nebraska — Due to a funding from the National Science Foundation, a research team at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln revealed in a news release on Wednesday plans to extend a program geared at assisting STEM students.

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With a grant from the National Science Foundation, a Husker research team is developing a program designed to aid STEM students from underrepresented backgrounds in their first two years of college intellectually, professionally, and psychologically.

With a five-year, $999,125 NSF grant, University of Nebraska–Lincoln researchers Kristi Montooth, Marianna Burks, and Patricia Wonch Hill are expanding a program they launched two years ago to provide mentored research opportunities and resources to underrepresented STEM undergraduates from marginalized backgrounds. The program seeks to assist students in overcoming the specific challenges they confront as they begin their college studies and enhance their university experience.

The COVID-19 pandemic worsened these challenges and highlighted the necessity for a program expansion: Although underrepresented students in STEM have had poorer first-year retention rates than other students for some time, the pandemic worsened the gap. The retention rate for all students who entered the University of Nebraska in the autumn of 2020 declined by 5%. Rates declined by 8.5%, 7%, and 9.0% for first-generation, Pell-eligible, and underrepresented students, respectively.

The effort, known as the STEM-POWER Research Program, aims to combat these tendencies. Through participation in supervised research collaborations, “POWER” empowers students with a sense of purpose, ownership, and well-being. The program will provide roughly forty undergraduates with paid research opportunities in the biological sciences, a strategy supported by statistics for keeping students in STEM degrees. It will also give opportunities for professional development, a feeling of community, mentoring, and one-on-one contacts that are essential for the collegiate success of these individuals.

The Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Susan J. Rosowski, stated, “Our methodology fits very well with our philosophy that ‘every person and contact matters’.” Individual relationships promote accountability on both sides, thus we ensure that our student researchers engage with specific individuals.

In addition to academic mentoring, individualized relationships are built through lunches, reading groups, professional development activities, shared study areas, and more. Facilitating relationship building for these students is crucial for preventing unavoidable roadblocks from causing them to abandon STEM majors.

“When you come from a rich upbringing, you may feel as though you can ask anyone for assistance,” said Montooth. “If you do not come from such background, you may be hesitant to ask a professor for assistance. We want to ensure that everyone who needs assistance gets access to a professor and a community.”

So far, research on the program, which began in the summer of 2021 with financing from the School of Biological Sciences, reveals that the relationship-building efforts of the program are having the greatest impact. According to Burks and Montooth, the students’ ties with instructors and one another have buffered them from the ups and downs of college life.

Burks, a biology instructor and science specialist for Nebraska’s TRIO Scholars Program, stated, “Being conscious about how we construct our community has been the most essential component of what we’ve observed qualitatively.” It has had a significant impact.

The additional NSF funding will allow the initiative to expand beyond its initial scope. With this scholarship, students will receive additional financing, mentoring, and assistance over the summer after their first year and throughout their second year of school.

This expansion will address a crucial deficiency: Even though Nebraska offers one of the nation’s most extensive menus of undergraduate research experiences, particularly through its and programs, second-year STEM students are underserved. The few opportunities at this level are significant since this is a time when many STEM students find difficulties in 100- and 200-level courses or school-work-life balancing challenges that may force them to abandon their STEM major.

Burks stated, “The second year is when they require the most assistance.” “They do not feel ready for UCARE, but are still interested in conducting research. In addition, students are concerned with maintaining a high GPA while maintaining a good academic balance.

Additionally, the program is extending its recruitment base. Up to this point, the team has recruited Lincoln students from the Upward Bound Math-Science program, which enhances the STEM skills of low-income students. Kids from the Nebraska College Preparatory Academy, which serves students from Omaha and Grand Island, will also be recruited for the first NSF-supported cohort, which will begin the program in the summer of 2023. Funding from the NSF will assist these students in settling into Lincoln during the summer preceding their first year of college.

The award will also fund hands-on training for graduate students interested in expanding science involvement. They will support program activities as summer research assistants. Additionally, former undergraduates in the program will serve as mentors for prospective students.

The program was created with longevity in mind. Its title is derived from the university’s, which emphasizes the sense of institutional affiliation and academic skills of new students. Eventually, the researchers would like to see STEM-POWER institutionalized and made available to all students across all disciplines.


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