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SU professors receive nearly $1M grant to recruit “underrepresented” students in STEM fields

SYRACUSE — Four Syracuse University (SU) professors will use a grant of nearly $1 million for a program to “support recruitment and retention of underrepresented” students in the STEM fields.

STEM is short for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded the funding, Syracuse said in a recent news release.

Professors John Tillotson, Karin Ruhlandt, Jason Wiles, and Kandice Salomone will use the money to launch a new program called “The Strategic Undergraduate STEM Talent Acceleration Initiative” or SUSTAIN.


They’ll also use the funding to research the program’s effectiveness.

“Supporting a diverse student body is a priority for the College of Arts and Sciences, particularly in areas with low retention rates, like the STEM fields,” Ruhlandt, a professor of chemistry and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said. “Because the country as a whole does not produce enough trained STEM personnel, supporting recruits is both a critical service to STEM students, as well as an important piece in national strategic workforce development.”

SUSTAIN seeks to recruit 30 “underrepresented” biology and chemistry students —including ethnic minorities, women, first-generation college students, and low-income students.

The instructors singled out biology and chemistry because of the differences in gender makeup and retention, as “biology features more women and higher retention of underrepresented groups,” Ruhlandt explained.

The professors hope to include physics and Earth-sciences students in future years, should they receive follow-up grants, Syracuse said.

“Attracting a diverse pool of undergraduates to pursue a STEM major has proven daunting given the limited numbers of underrepresented minorities, women and low-income students from disadvantaged backgrounds who opt to pursue these majors at a national scale,” Tillotson said in the release. “A greater challenge still is retaining these students in the STEM pipeline during their undergraduate programs.”

Across all groups, up to half of STEM majors will leave their programs, a problem “further exacerbated” in “underrepresented” groups, Tillotson said.

Reasons for not completing a STEM degree range from insufficient academic preparation to difficulty acclimating to the institutional STEM culture, the school said.

“As part of the SUSTAIN project, our goal is to provide 360-degree wraparound support that addresses all of these factors,” Tillotson added.

SUSTAIN will also implement programming to improve student retention. Participating students will live in the “STEM professional living and learning community,” and they will be in a special section of First Year Forum exploring the nature of science, led by Tillotson and Wiles.

First Year Forum is a program for students in Syracuse’s College of Arts and Sciences, described as “a small-group, seminar-like class, [that] helps new students discover all that the College, SU, and the surrounding communities have to offer,” according to the college’s section on the Syracuse University website.

Ruhlandt will oversee STEM faculty mentoring, and Salomone will direct support intervention services.

To further bolster SUSTAIN students, all participants will be guaranteed “peer-led team-learning experiences” in introductory STEM courses.

Wiles’ previous research indicates that this learning and teaching style “benefits” achievement, recruitment and retention of students in STEM fields, particularly for “underrepresented” groups.

Another piece of the grant supports research on the program itself.

Tillotson and Wiles will collect data on SUSTAIN’s effectiveness on “underrepresented”-student retention.

Should the program prove successful, it could then be repeated at the university or even implemented at other institutions, Syracuse said.


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