UNC-CH scholarship program aims to diversify sciences

jstancill@newsobserver.comMay 26, 2014 

— UNC-Chapel Hill is at the forefront of an effort to diversify the ranks of U.S. researchers in science, technology, engineering and math.

The university will double a scholarship program that enrolls a diverse group of undergraduates interested in research careers in the so-called STEM fields.

Last week, UNC-CH – along with University of Maryland, Baltimore County and Pennsylvania State University – received a joint grant of $7.75 million from the Maryland-based Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

The money will be used to expand and evaluate scholarship programs at the campuses, with an eye toward perfecting a model that could be implemented at other universities in the United States.

UNC-CH’s Chancellor’s Science Scholars program started last year with 24 first-year students and will expand with 33 entering freshmen this fall. Eventually, 40 students a year will be enrolled at UNC-CH’s program.

It is modeled on the successful Meyerhoff Scholars program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which has produced 900 science graduates since 1993, including 144 who went on to earn doctorates and 107 who became medical doctors. About 300 graduates of the program are now in graduate school.

“They have the best track record of putting minority students into graduate programs in the sciences and on to Ph.D.’s,” said Joe Templeton, a UNC-CH chemistry professor who spearheaded the grant application.

The Meyerhoff program, featured on CBS’ “60 Minutes” in 2011, started with a focus on minorities, particularly African-American males, but it later opened up to anyone with an interest in science, engineering and math disciplines.

Though the scholarships are open to anyone, their emphasis is on underrepresented, low-income and first-generation college students. UNC-CH’s Chancellor’s Science Scholars were majority female, 25 percent African-American and with a contingent of Latino students in the first year.

Face to face

The idea behind the program is to give talented science students mentoring, research internships and an intense bonding experience with their classmates. Students receive $10,000 a year toward their educational costs.

Before students enroll, they attend a five-week summer session, when they take three academic courses and live in the historic Old East residence hall. They are asked to give up social media so they can connect with their fellow students face to face, and they are told not to use cellphones during the day. The students do everything together, from studying to classes to meals.

Templeton said the point is to transition the students to the demands of a science degree, imposing mental discipline on them while surrounding them with a support system.

“This is about peer support so you can make it through not only the good times but also the dark tunnels that are part of taking the hard courses in the sciences,” he said.

Jesse Barnes, 19, of Eden, was in the first class of the scholars who stuck together all the time, he said.

“It was kind of annoying but we realized it was for a good reason,” he said.

The constant togetherness proved to be a boon to the students. A biology major, Barnes said he sometimes struggled with chemistry. But several of his fellow scholars are chemistry whizzes, and they were happy to help him out.

“It’s really good not only for personal and emotional support, but also for academic support,” said Barnes, who wants to pursue a doctorate in ecology. “Just having a study partner is really helpful.

The students sometimes socialize together, and the program builds in study breaks to blow off steam.

‘From all cultures’

Lauren D. Thomas, coordinator, said the program emphasizes diversity in all its forms. That is good for science, which is international and interdisciplinary.

“In order for us to advance the work, there has to be people from all cultures and walks of life to interpret that objective data that science gives us,” said Thomas, who has a doctorate in engineering education.

Along their path, the students are surveyed and monitored on their progress. That data will go toward evaluating the program to see what works and what doesn’t.

In that way, the program will become a testing ground of how to graduate STEM students who might otherwise get frustrated, change majors or drop out.

The first 24 students made it through the freshman year. About two-thirds are doing summer research abroad or at universities across the United States, Thomas said.

“It’s been an incredible success,” UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt told trustees last week. “This new grant is a real vote of confidence in what we’ve already done and really does help enable our institution, with our partners, to create a model that we hope will be spread across the country.”

Stancill: 919-829-4559

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