RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Undergraduates at the University of California, Riverside are on a success roll. First, two students won Goldwater Scholarships, announced last month. Now three undergraduate students have been named winners of prestigious scholarships from the Donald A. Strauss Foundation. Highly competitive, the Strauss Scholarship is a public service scholarship given to university students in California.
Connor Richards, a junior majoring in physics and astronomy, received the scholarship for a project that aims to increase college enrollment in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields among Riverside -- area high school students -- specifically those from underrepresented, low-income, and/or first-generation backgrounds.
Richards's project, titled "Support and Mentoring for Aspiring Scientists in High School" or SMASH, has received $10,000 and will involve the joint partnership of UC Riverside's College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (CNAS), the Department of Physics and Astronomy, and the Riverside Unified School District (RUSD).
"The generous funding the project received from the Strauss Foundation will allow for the expansion of the CERN Masterclass to local high school students," said Connor, who won a Goldwater Scholarship last year. Each year, the Department of Physics and Astronomy hosts the Masterclass, an internationally recognized outreach program showcasing world-class particle physics research. "The funding will also allow us to create complementary, yearlong tutoring and mentoring resources for these high school students."
At UCR, Connor works with Owen Long, a professor of physics and astronomy, to look for evidence for dark matter -- mysterious stuff that is more than five times as abundant as the matter with which we are more familiar. Interested in becoming a faculty member in experimental high-energy physics, Richards is concerned that not many students from underrepresented backgrounds pursue STEM degrees.
"This is one of the most pressing problems of the day," he said. "My project takes an existing outreach program at UCR and leverages it with the cooperation of CNAS and RUSD to target high school students. After I graduate, the project will continue with the support of CNAS, RUSD and the Department of Physics and Astronomy."
The other winners of the Strauss Scholarship are Hanni Schoniger and Jade Zamorano. Their project, which received $ 10,000 as well, proposes a self-sustaining outreach program to bridge the educational opportunity gap in the Inland Empire by inspiring underrepresented youth in high schools to pursue higher education and careers in STEM fields.
"We plan to reach this goal through career presentations and scholarship workshops at local schools by UCR STEM students," Schoniger said. "Our team consists of ethnically diverse females in science majors, who will serve as role models."
In the planning are an annual STEM Exploration Day, hosted on campus, and a tri-annual all-girls conference, hosted at community centers - both aimed at giving students the opportunity to interact with leaders in the STEM fields, get informed about internship and volunteer opportunities, and participate in fun, inquiry-based science experiments.
"Ultimately our goal is to establish and sustain a dynamic peer network with high school students, UCR alumni, and current UCR undergraduates, in which college students will mentor local students and encourage them to pursue STEM careers," Zamorano explained. "We want to make a lasting impact not only on the lives of the students, but also to foster a self-perpetuating passion for STEM in the culture of the community."
Schoniger, a third-year biology major with a double minor in neuroscience and education, wants to be a science educator after she graduates. She plans to obtain her teaching credentials and a master's degree in either chemistry or biology so that she can teach and inspire high school and community college students.
At UCR, she volunteers in the lab of Anupama Dahanukar, as assistant professor of entomology, working with fruit flies. Schoniger is working on understanding how taste receptors affect the attraction towards or the aversion away from different acids. For her Honors capstone project, she is conducting a longitudinal ethnographic study of high school students and how they perceive STEM in a school setting.
Zamorano, a third-year biology major with a minor in neuroscience, plans to attend medical school after graduating and would like to specialize in cardiology or neurology, even both. The UCR School of Medicine is attractive to her because she values its efforts to address the current healthcare disparity in the Inland Empire and improve the overall health of the local community through education and preventative heathcare.
Currently, she is working on her capstone project under the supervision of Richard Cardullo, a professor of biology. The project centers on evaluating the impact of peer mentorship and exposure to opportunities in the sciences on underrepresented high school students and the likelihood that these students will pursue higher education and careers in STEM
Both Schoniger and Zamorano are interested in STEM education outreach because "our economy is shifting towards STEM, but not many students are going into these areas, especially in the Inland Empire."
"We need to get more students excited about science and math," Schoniger said. "Both of our careers, as a science educator and as a medical practitioner, involve educating the public about science. We especially want to inspire girls because America's population is about 51 percent female, but STEM fields don't currently reflect this."
Richards, Schoniger and Zamorano are thrilled that the Strauss Foundation supports unique community and public service projects that tackle prevalent issues in today's society.
"The Strauss Foundation will not only give us the ability to provide opportunities to underrepresented youth, but also allows us to grow personally through conferences and mentoring from Strauss Foundation Board Members," Schoniger said.
"The Trustees of the Donald A. Strauss Scholarship Foundation feel that we - and the University of California, Riverside - have an unusual opportunity this year: two excellent proposals from the same university, each addressing the same problem or issue differently," said Gordon Strauss, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Louisville, Ky., and a member of the Strauss Foundation Board of Trustees. "We've often had two proposals on similar topics from different colleges in the same year in the past, but for us, this is a first. So we are hoping that the Strauss Scholars - Connor Richards and Hanni Schoniger & Jade Zamorano - will agree to use outcome measures for the two projects in common. That way anyone interested in increasing the number of high school students interested in and seeking careers in STEM can better understand how each of these approaches helps solve the problem. It's not so much a competition as it is that a problem as complex as this one will probably need multiple approaches."
This year, UCR, UCLA and Stanford University are the only universities that had two projects funded by the Strauss Foundation; in total, the UC system had nine projects funded. Approximately 12 awards are given to California undergraduates each year. Winners have often succeeded in securing other scholarships, such as the Rhodes scholarship, Marshall Scholarship and the Fulbright.
Since 2012, of the UC campuses, only UCLA (6) has had more Strauss projects funded than UCR (5). UCR and UCLA are the only two campuses to have won all four years. UCR is the only UC campus to have had two Goldwater Scholars and two winning Strauss proposals in 2015.
The Strauss Scholarships that Richards, Schoniger and Zamarona received are for the 2015-2016 academic year.
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