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NSF grant to promote student success in STEM

Eberly College of Science awarded $1 million to expand programs across multiple Penn State campuses
8 May 2019

The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $1 million to the Eberly College of Science at Penn State as part of its Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S-STEM) program. The grant will support the expansion of two existing innovative programs that have already proven successful at increasing undergraduate student success in the sciences. The award will be used to extend the Science Dean’s Scholarship program, which provides scholarships and support to science students with financial need and who are transitioning in their third year to University Park from one of the University’s other campuses as part of the 2+2 plan. The grant also supports the growth of the biocalculus B sequence at University Park and other campuses; this course sequence uses student-centered teaching approaches and undergraduate learning assistants to present calculus in the context of the life sciences.

“The Science Dean’s Scholarships and Biocalculus programs have already demonstrated their effectiveness at promoting learning, retention, and success for students in the Eberly College of Science,” said Douglas Cavener, Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science. “Finding innovative ways to foster success in the sciences is one of the major missions of the college, and this new S-STEM grant from NSF confirms the good work we are already doing and allows us to expand these programs.”

Bringing these two programs together is a way of enhancing their natural synergy, providing a multiplier which should lead to further, measurable improvements in students’ success in mathematics, persistence in furthering their studies in science, and ultimately, their graduation from Penn State. With this new NSF funding, the college will be able to directly support 180 students as Science Dean’s Scholars or as learning assistants and to at least triple the number of students enrolled in the calculus B sequence across multiple Penn State campuses.

“The Science Dean’s Scholarships are targeted at students with financial need who are transitioning from other Penn State campuses to University Park,” said Mary Beth Williams, senior associate dean for undergraduate education in the Eberly College of Science. “Not only do we provide financial support for these scholars, we also have a dedicated program director and an academic advisor to help with the academic and social challenges associated with making the move to University Park. With this new funding, we also plan to implement a two-week bridge program, bringing the scholars to University Park early to introduce them to the campus and welcome them to our scholarly community.”

Students accepted into the Science Dean’s Scholarship program are matched with peer mentors and a transition adviser, and they enjoy program activities that provide them with opportunities to learn more about University Park resources and future career options.

One of the traditional barriers to success for many students in the Eberly College of Science is calculus—a two-semester mathematics sequence required for all degree programs, including Biology and other life sciences. Calculus is well-known as a gateway course for student success and persistence in STEM fields. A higher percentage of students transitioning from another campus to University Park require preparatory, pre-calculus math courses, leading them to take calculus later in their studies.

Finding innovative ways to foster success in the sciences is one of the major missions of the college, and this new S-STEM grant from NSF confirms the good work we are already doing and allows us to expand these programs.
Douglas R. Cavener

“Calculus and physics grew up together as siblings, but that was a long time ago. It has since become part of the mathematical approach to biology, as well. And with the explosion of quantitative data in the life sciences, and researchers becoming more and more number savvy, we need to keep up,” said Andrew Belmonte, professor of mathematics and of materials science and engineering at Penn State. “The B sequence was developed at University Park to address this, reinvigorating calculus pedagogically by embedding it in life science examples, while introducing other concepts like eigenvalues or Markov chains early on. It has proven an enormously successful approach.”

Around 70 percent of students in the Eberly College of Science major in one of the life sciences, and when calculus is presented to them in a way that is relevant to the context of their major, they learn more and are more successful. The Biocalculus program was restructured and expanded to a larger population of students at University Park in 2014, and it has since demonstrated a high student success rate in the course and beyond.

“We have beautiful data that show that this program is an effective pedagogical and curricular approach, and because of that we expanded it at University Park to make it available to more of our students,” said Williams. “This new funding will allow us to bring the program to the Penn State campuses, and we have a team of faculty who are ready to implement it there.”

“Expanding the Biocalculus program to the other Penn State campuses will not only help students in their transition to University Park, but will also help those students who choose to finish their degree programs at their campus location,” said Jennifer Sciple, lecturer in mathematics at Penn State Berks.

In addition to expanding these two successful programs, this new award allows for an educational research component to investigate the reasons for its success and look for ways to improve the experience of students in the sciences who choose to pursue their education in the 2+2 plan.

“Penn State is unique in that it is a single institution that is geographically distributed, with many students spending their first two years at another Penn State campus before moving to University Park to complete their degree,” said Williams. “The lessons we are learning by studying our student population in these programs will be applicable to broader retention efforts in STEM as well as for students transitioning from community colleges to four-year institutions.”

The NSF S-STEM program aims to increase the success of low-income, academically talented students with demonstrated financial need who are pursuing associate, baccalaureate, or graduate degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). It was designed to maintain competitiveness of the U.S. in the global economy by addressing the need for a high-quality STEM workforce. Recognizing that financial aid alone cannot increase retention and graduation in STEM, the program provides awards to institutions of higher education to fund scholarships while advancing the adaptation, implementation, and study of effective evidence-based curricular and co-curricular activities that support recruitment, retention, student success, academic/career pathways, and graduation in STEM.