RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- The College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (CNAS) at the University of California, Riverside has received a five-year grant of $2 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to improve undergraduate success and retention in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors, particularly for underrepresented students.
Funding is provided by the STEM Talent Expansion Program (STEP) of the NSF's Division of Undergraduate Education. Only 10 large STEP grants were awarded nationwide by NSF during the current fiscal year funding cycle, out of 199 proposals submitted.
"CNAS has already demonstrated that we can increase student retention in science and mathematics fields using our freshman success programs," said Marylynn Yates, the dean of CNAS. "However, this grant will enable us to increase substantially the number of students we can serve, as well as expand and improve existing programs. As a result, we will be better able to educate the scientific leaders of tomorrow."
The UC Riverside project, entitled "SL-CARE: Student Learning Communities and Research Engagement," will focus on dramatically expanding student participation in both first-year learning communities and early laboratory research engagement courses in CNAS.
The learning community cohorts are each comprised of 24 freshmen, offering participants an immediate peer group. Members of each learning community take the same mathematics and science courses, and support one another.
"The transition from high school to college is difficult," said Michael McKibben, the associate dean for student academic affairs in CNAS and the principal investigator of the grant. "Echoing national trends in science education, CNAS loses 40 percent of its majors in their freshman or sophomore years. The new NSF grant will greatly help our entering freshmen make that transition successfully and thus remain in science and mathematics majors."
One of the goals of SL-CARE is to break down any perceived barriers that entering freshmen may have, such as anxiety about approaching faculty and the complexity of navigating university regulations and policies. The project also seeks to expose students early to hands-on research, making their introductory science courses seem more meaningful and relevant because they are participating directly in the process of scientific discovery.
The CNAS freshman learning communities, a high priority for the college, have been in place since 2007. Since then, the college has seen an improvement in participants' grade point average and four-year graduation rate.
"Our students are often from low-income backgrounds and are the first in their families to go to college," said McKibben, an associate professor of geology. "Further, many belong to ethnic groups that are severely underrepresented in science and mathematics fields. These facts make it harder for our students to make the transition to college, especially in the critical first and second years."
Currently, CNAS has 32 learning communities for freshmen. Participants get to spend time with faculty members, who discuss science, the scientific method, and the excitement of scientific discovery, and explore career opportunities. The students also learn to develop their skills in time management, study habits, course planning and how to negotiate UCR policies and procedures from CNAS professional academic advisors.
"UC Riverside is taking practices that have proven to be effective in engaging and retaining students in STEM, and making them available to many more freshmen," said Myles Boylan, NSF program director for the STEP program. "In their first year as undergraduates, these students will have crucial support in being successful with their studies in STEM."
"All CNAS students need to be exposed to scientific research early in their academic career," said Susan Wessler, a distinguished professor of genetics and the grant's lead co-principal investigator, who runs the "Dynamic Genome," a laboratory-intensive learning program at UCR. "For them to understand and become energized about science, they need to first participate in the discovery process."
"This combination of peer grouping, direct faculty mentoring, focused academic advising and active participation in discovery-based research is what makes the CNAS learning communities so successful," McKibben said. "This major grant will enable us to provide those opportunities to most of our incoming science freshmen."
An internal advisory committee for the project will be chaired by Steven Brint, the vice provost of undergraduate education and a professor of sociology. An independent outside educational evaluator based in Irvine, Calif., will assess the outcomes and success of the project.
UCR's student body is among the most diverse in the nation. Nearly 60 percent of undergraduate students are the first in their families to earn college degrees.
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