Portland State University faculty have received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to help students transferring from community colleges to achieve STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) degrees. More than half of the money will go to student scholarships.
The five-year grant seeks to mitigate "transfer shock" - a common problem among students transferring from community colleges, where smaller class sizes and easier access to instructors are the norm compared to large universities. These students can feel lost when they transfer to Portland State, where everything is on a grander, more intimidating scale, according to Erin Shortlidge, assistant professor of biology at PSU and the lead investigator for the grant.
"There are 300 students in my Principles of Biology class, and there might be 20 or 30 students in a similar class at a community college," she said.
Transfer students sometimes don't know that they can and should talk with their professors during office hours, and may have a harder time developing a social network compared to their experience at a community college, she said. In addition, STEM transfer students sometimes have difficulties navigating access to authentic undergraduate research experiences, a key component of a STEM degree.
Transfer shock can be more acute at an urban university like PSU compared to other universities because it's largely a non-residential campus, potentially making it harder to form bonds and a sense of belonging with fellow students and the university, Shortlidge said. PSU also serves an older student population, with a large number of students traditionally underrepresented in STEM, and more than 70 percent of students receive financial aid.
The grant aims to improve STEM transfer student success by recruiting academically promising, low-income community college students, and setting them up in a program to help them build relationships with faculty, advisors and fellow students. A unique component of this study is that PSU students will first participate in substantial course-based research experiences, where they will work as a team on research and discovery projects that have local relevance.
Following this research onboarding experience, students will be placed in individual internships or independent research projects. The plan leverages existing programming and resources at PSU including those provided by another NSF-funded program, the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (LSAMP).
Nearly $600,000 of the grant will directly contribute to scholarships for PSU students. The rest will go to research support, staffing and other expenses.
The idea for the grant came from discussions among PSU faculty in areas such as chemistry, biology and University Studies, who realized the unique difficulties STEM transfer students have, not only at PSU but in universities throughout the country. At PSU, the majority of STEM students transfer from community colleges.
"This came about through a multidisciplinary team recognizing that this is a perfect fit for instituting change at PSU," Shortlidge said.