$872,523 grant to help Oswego students stay with STEM

The National Science Foundation recently awarded SUNY Oswego a five-year, $872,523 grant to boost the retention of freshmen and sophomores in STEM majors.

Faculty member Fehmi Damkaci with student Shirley Peng.The grant will enable the college to increase support services—especially in math and chemistry—and research opportunities for all science, technology, engineering and math majors, with a particular eye to helping younger students avoid academic disqualification, switches to non-STEM majors and other departures from science and math disciplines.

“This grant comes timely, because we are increasing our efforts in the STEM fields and raising our goals in that area,” said Fehmi Damkaci, assistant professor of chemistry and principal investigator for the grant. “This will be one piece in the puzzle to streamline success for our students from high school to graduation.”

The college and the State University have invested $118 million in a state-of-the-art, 230,000-square-foot Science and Engineering Innovation Corridor to open a year from now, helping fulfill SUNY Oswego’s commitment to increasing STEM graduates for a workforce that needs them to compete globally.

In a study to prepare the grant application, STEM professors and institutional researchers found that in 2009-10, less than half of the 266 freshmen who declared a science or math major at SUNY Oswego were still STEM majors two years later, in fall 2011. Major stumbling blocks included mathematics and general chemistry courses required of nearly all STEM majors.

Five steps

The grant outlines a five-step program to shore up support for freshman and sophomore STEM majors: expanding a summer math camp for incoming STEM majors to include chemistry content and more students; integrating “math in context” components for introductory chemistry and physics classes; expanding and improving the tutoring services available to STEM students; instituting peer mentoring by upperclassmen for freshmen and sophomores; and expanding summer research opportunities for freshmen and sophomores in STEM.

The academic team for the grant, which goes by the acronym Oswego SMILES (Science and Math Increased Learning Experiences in STEM), began two years ago to address the math and chemistry challenges.

In summer 2011, for example, SUNY Oswego piloted a three-week immersive math camp as a bridge to success for new STEM students receiving scholarships under a National Science Foundation grant helping those facing obstacles to studying in the field. Starting in summer 2013, Damkaci said, the expanded program will become the SUNY Oswego Math and Chemistry Bridge Camp.

The college also plans to expand its Summer Scholars program to fund more opportunities for freshmen and sophomores to work with faculty on research projects. Studies have found that undergraduate research leads to increased student engagement and improved preparation for advanced coursework, according to the grant application.

Damkaci said work to improve the existing tutoring program can begin immediately, while work to institute mentoring and develop the math-in-context curriculum for chemistry and physics lab classes will take some time. Junior and senior student mentors, for example, will need to enroll in a training course that is in development.

“This grant is looking for structural change that can be sustained going into the future,” Damkaci said. “These programs will be replicable by other institutions, as they are generally low cost and high impact.”

PHOTO CAPTION: All SMILES—Shirley Peng, right, a senior chemistry major and journalism minor at SUNY Oswego, talks with Fehmi Damkaci, assistant professor of chemistry, about the possibility of mentoring freshmen and sophomore STEM majors whose difficulties with required math and chemistry courses can lead to academic disqualification, changes in major or transfer. Damkaci leads the college’s team for a new $872,523 National Science Foundation grant with the acronym SMILES (Science and Math Increased Learning Experiences in STEM) to increase retention of young students in STEM majors.

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(Posted: Aug 29, 2012)

Tags: stem, solutions, science, prospective students, mathematics, math, intellectual rigor, education pipeline