The National Science Foundation awarded a $999,029 grant to a team of University of Houston researchers for a new program aimed at studying the impact of scholarships, engagement and other support on low-income students and their academic success.
The program, titled "Engineering/NSM Student Success Program Serving Low-Income Academically Talented Students," is a collaboration of two existing UH STEM programs -- the Program for Mastery in Engineering Studies (PROMES) in the Cullen College of Engineering and the Scholar Enrichment Program (SEP) in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (NSM). It is funded through the NSF's S-STEM program.
"Low income students don't have the time nor can they often afford to be engaged," Diana de la Rosa-Pohl, instructional assistant professor at the UH Cullen College of Engineering. "We want to give them a little bit of a breathing room and support to get more engaged on campus because we know that's really what moves the needle on student success."
De la Rosa-Pohl is familiar with the challenges faced by low income students. As a high school student, she worked at a restaurant in South Padre Island, almost an hour's drive from her home in Brownsville. She juggled the long commutes, school responsibilities and work on a regular basis.
She went on to earn two master's degrees - in physics and electrical engineering - and a doctorate in education. Now she wants to help other students in their journey.
The project will fund 80 two-year scholarships over five years for students pursuing undergraduate degrees in the Cullen College of Engineering and NSM.
"This is going to give a lot of money to a large number of deserving students. About 64 percent of the grant money will go straight to student scholarships," said Stuart Long, Cullen College professor of electrical and computer engineering and associate dean of the Honors College and Undergraduate Research at the University of Houston.
But the program goes beyond providing financial help, emphasizing long-term support through college and beyond.
"We're trying to do something different with the scholarship program," de la Rosa-Pohl said. "Instead of focusing on the financial side of it, we wanted to focus on the engagement side of it and use the financial piece as an incentive to attract the students."
There is growing evidence indicating that students from low-income backgrounds have lower graduation rates and are less likely to find jobs in their respective fields compared to their peers from higher-income families.
"We find that a lot of low income students are missing social capital in their backgrounds," de la Rosa-Pohl said. "Social capital is comprised of a lot of things, it's those things you expect the wealthier students to have - more connections, more emphasis on education in their social circles, their parents are probably better educated and have higher degrees, and also higher economic status. Just many things that give [the students] that support structure when they get to college."
"We want to fill those gaps," she added.
The research aspect of the project aims to show that increasing access to such factors will help students be more successful.
The primary investigators on the project are de la Rosa-Pohl and Long, both with the electrical and computer engineering (ECE) department at the Cullen College. Andrew Hamilton, associate dean for student success in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and Jerrod Henderson, PROMES director, are the non-ECE investigators on this project.
"By the end of five years, we hope to be able to prove - with data - that we have increased the students' level of engagement, not in just one measure but multiple measures and on different levels," de la Rosa-Pohl said. "Engagement with their classes, engagement in research and engagement with the campus community."
- Story written by Rashda Khan