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$1 million NSF grant focuses on increasing diversity in STEM fields

The Charles H. Townes Science Center houses all of the science departments at Furman.

Daniela Mesa ’17 is working toward her Ph.D. at Purdue University. But that might not have come to pass without the support – financial, relational and academic – that she received at Furman.

Mesa is a first-generation college student who received a scholarship as part of a $600,000 National Science Foundation S-STEM (Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) award granted to Furman from 2012-18. The program makes a STEM degree accessible for academically strong students who are eligible to receive a Federal Pell Grant.

“From a financial perspective, it made Furman accessible to me,” Mesa said.

Furman has been awarded a new $1 million S-STEM grant for 2020-25. Among other components, the award will provide renewable scholarships for 24 high-merit, high-need students seeking bachelor’s degrees in chemistry, biology, neuroscience or the geosciences.

These SOAR (Science Opportunities, Activities and Research) Scholars will receive up to $10,000 per year in scholarship support, renewable for four years. The first iteration of the program at Furman resulted in a 100% four-year graduation rate (90% at Furman), with 96% completing a degree in a STEM or an allied field.

The project is led by principal investigator John Wheeler, associate provost for integrative science and professor of chemistry at Furman, along with co-principal investigators Benjamin Haywood, assistant director of the Faculty Development Center, John Kaup, director of science education, and Michelle Horhota, associate dean of mentoring and advising and associate professor of psychology.

Because the program groups students as cohorts and provides ongoing support, relationships develop that provide a holistic approach to helping them succeed.

“I’m not sure I would be in graduate school right now if I hadn’t gone to Furman and had the one-on-one with my professors that I did,” Mesa said.

That level of community is intentional.

“This particular grant is  also focused on supporting faculty in STEM fields and developing effective pedagogies for students that we know historically are underrepresented in those fields,” Haywood said.

While much of the funding is for scholarships, Haywood said the other piece of the puzzle comes in helping Furman find better ways to help those students once they are on campus.

“So much of the research shows that access is certainly very important,” he said, “but you also have to provide those students with the toolkit they need and the resources they need to be successful in higher education environments.”

That begins with SAFE (Start an Amazing Furman Experience) Passage, a unique, immersive experience during the summer prior to the start of the students’ first year.

“They participate in mock classes, in some AI-based review and training in precalculus to prepare them for their calculus courses,” said Wheeler. “They have enhanced advising experiences.”

Michael Turlington ’16, who received a scholarship as part of the S-STEM program, is now a graduate student in chemistry at the University of North Carolina.

“The familiarity that I gained with the campus during this time helped me feel comfortable at Furman right from the start, which allowed me to seek out opportunities in my chosen major of chemistry,” he said. “The research opportunities that I received at Furman, thanks to the NSF S-STEM program, have been instrumental in preparing me for graduate school and my future career as a chemistry professor.”

Meeting with faculty and learning about research opportunities was key for Mesa, who participated in four summers of research while at Furman. Student cohorts have some classes together and meet as part of the same Pathways for SOAR Scholars group, discussing academic advising and much more related to career and overall success, with weekly seminar/workshop meetings over the first two years.

While the national focus of the program is on increasing socioeconomic diversity, at Furman the goal is that half of these scholars will self-identify as first generation or as members of an underrepresented minority group. The Faculty Development Center will help assess what works, which benefits Furman and its students but can also translate to classrooms across the country.

“We want to do as much as we can to support the 24 students that will be funded through the grant, but our hope is that what we learn, and the resources and materials we put together to help support these students, (can be shared) with other institutions and educators, not just those in higher education,” Haywood said. “These are groups of people whose perspectives and ideas haven’t always been included in the way we think about teaching STEM.

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