A five-year National Science Foundation grant to increase SUNY Oswego retention of freshmen and sophomores in science, technology, engineering and math programs through Early Summer Scholars and other support services has succeeded beyond expectations in its first three years, fueling an expansion.

Student and faculty member working on biology field project

Jaclyn Lovell, now a SUNY Oswego sophomore biochemistry major, said the college’s NSF STEP (STEM Talent Expansion Program) grant provided her an early boost, the opportunity to do field research following her freshman year.

“It really opened up a lot of opportunities for me. I have no regrets about spending my summer here,” said Lovell, a Baldwinsville resident who worked with biological sciences faculty member Dr. Andrew McElwain on parasites infecting freshwater snails in Rice Creek. Lovell earned a teaching assistant position and continues to do lab work on McElwain’s project.

With two years remaining on the $872,500 NSF STEP grant, organizers have set their sights higher than original goals: more upperclassmen serve as mentors in the labs of more science, technology, engineering and math students; more tutors help younger students on a walk-in basis in more courses; and more incoming students take part in a restructured math bridge camp.

“The NSF is happy with the results,” said Dr. Fehmi Damkaci, chemistry department chair and principal investigator for the grant. “We’ve scaled it up beyond the original proposal. Since it’s successful, why not go beyond what we said?”

The college’s proposal had anticipated the five-program suite of early-college support services would have improved retention in STEM majors from freshman to sophomore years by 10 percent to 12 percent at this stage of the grant. Several of the programs have achieved increases of 13 percent to 15 percent in freshman-to-sophomore retention.

The retention project aims, ultimately, to increase the STEM persistence-to-graduation rate as well. Damkaci said the goal is to improve the rate by 20 percent over 2010 levels.

Expanded mentoring

Students working in lab on chemistry projectFreshman biology major Alison Schank said she has benefited from the assistance of junior Kevin Clark, a peer mentor in the lab for general chemistry.

“It definitely helps to have mentors,” Schank said. “The first day, I had no clue what I was doing, and Kevin came over and helped set me on the right path. It helps to have someone who went down the same road you are starting on.”

Clark said one of the peer mentors’ goals is to help younger students understand the “why” of work in the lab. “We keep them looking at the forest, not the trees. The big picture helps keep them engaged. A lot of what we do is work with students to make sure no one is falling behind and getting frustrated,” he said.

Damkaci, who has teamed with faculty and staff in many departments to move the grant forward, said peer mentors originally were planned for some chemistry and physics labs. Now they are in virtually all such labs serving freshmen and sophomore students, and the program has expanded to the earth sciences.

Courses offering tutors in math, chemistry, physics and biology courses have increased, as has the number of students served—by nearly eight times—thanks also to walk-in rather than by-appointment services, Damkaci said. About 500 students utilized tutoring in the sciences and math in fall 2014.

The pre-college math and chemistry bridge camp ran for three weeks in midsummer 2012 and 2013. Formerly serving only about 20 NSF STEP students, the college now offers a restructured math bridge camp the week before school starts. This summer, it served 95 students in the grant program and added other skills training for success in college.

The math-in-context initiative of the grant aims to apply mathematics in practical ways to specific needs in the sciences. Beginning with chemistry and physics, the program has expanded to electrical and computer engineering, which integrated contextual math into the required “Introduction to Engineering” course.

Research opportunities

The college, already known for encouraging undergraduate research, has funded 10 Early Summer Scholars positions each summer during the first three years of the NSF STEP grant.

Damkaci praised the work of his Summer Scholars, then-freshman biochemistry major Walter Paz-Orozco and then-sophomore chemistry major Theron Richardson. Diana Boyer, a faculty member in atmospheric and geological sciences, expressed similar thoughts about Summer Scholars Olivia Botting and Meaghan Weinell, both now sophomore geology majors, who assisted Boyer at the site of a prehistoric mass-extinction event in Ohio.

“Because of the diversity of things I did with the students, they were able to discover what they really liked,” Boyer said.  She later added, “They were able to closely interact with other professionals—faculty from SUNY Fredonia in the field and SUNY Geneseo in the lab—and a graduate student in both settings to see what the next steps in their careers could be like.”

Lovell, the Early Summer Scholar at Rice Creek, summed up her experience. “I love being a STEM major,” she said. “Science is really beautiful. You can describe literally anything with science.”

PHOTO CAPTION 1: Early field research—Jaclyn Lovell (right), now a SUNY Oswego sophomore biochemistry major, works with Andrew McElwain of the biological sciences faculty to look for freshwater snails in Rice Creek that may carry parasites. Funded by a five-year NSF STEP grant, Early Summer Scholars is one of five programs designed to encourage freshmen and sophomores to stay with majors in the STEM fields.

PHOTO CAPTION 2: Helping hand—SUNY Oswego peer mentor Kevin Clark (left), a junior chemistry major, assists freshman biology major Alison Schank in a general chemistry lab in Shineman Center. The peer mentoring program, one of five support services offered to freshmen and sophomores in several STEM majors, is part of an $872,500 grant to boost retention in science, technology, engineering and math fields.