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NSF grant supports Rutgers-Camden program for science majors

CAMDEN Contrary to a national trend, more and more students at Rutgers UniversityCamden are signing up to major in math and science. Thanks to a $307,277 grant from the National Science Foundation, these (and future) students in the sciences at RutgersCamden will receive unprecedented support throughout their undergraduate years to the successful completion of their degrees.

Through a new RutgersCamden program titled Q-STEP, (Quantitative-STEM Talent Expansion Program, with "STEM" referring to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), select first-year students enrolled in biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, and physics will be provided with special programming throughout their four-year education that includes extra social support, increased chance for group study and problem solving, and assigned academic advisors. A major goal of Q-STEP is to increase by 25% the graduation rates of STEM majors at RutgersCamden.

Numerous organizations across the country have been working to increase retention and success in these disciplines at the undergraduate level, including NSF's own Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program. While RutgersCamden has had huge increases in these majors, which in itself breaks the national trend, Q-STEP seeks to better retain these students and ensure full completion of the program.

"In the last five years at RutgersCamden, African American, Latino, and women in the science and mathematics majors have increased greatly, by 108%," says Joseph V. Martin, a professor of biology at RutgersCamden, of the campus experience. The principal investigator of the study, he attributes the increase to Rutgers' extensive outreach to its host city's high schools and community colleges. "However, the numbers of graduates in these disciplines increased more slowly by 10%," notes Martin.

Other RutgersCamden researchers involved in Q-STEP as co-principal investigators include Alex J. Roche, chair and associate professor of chemistry; Daniel M. Bubb, chair and associate professor of physics; Haydee Herrera, graduate program director and associate professor of mathematics; and Sunil M. Shende, chair and associate professor of computer science.

Precisely why students choose not to stick with the science track is unclear. A major aspect of Q-STEP is to determine and analyze the pitfalls that contribute to this phenomenon and work to modify those contributing factors. "It could be one class turns them off completely from pursuing a degree in the sciences," surmises Martin. "But there are known interventions and we plan to determine what works best, and then make the needed changes in curriculum."

In its first year, a group of 30 Q-STEP scholars will be selected to form an innovative learning community. This group will receive intensive tutoring from a second group, comprised of six upper-level students, who are performing well in their major. The five-year grant will allow the Q-STEP student community ultimately to grow to 90 scholars and 30 paid mentors. Benefits for all involved include a designated space for Q-STEP learning activities and opportunities to assist various researchers in lab settings throughout the academic year and summer.

At the end of a three-year period, RutgersCamden researchers will analyze data and publish findings on the effectiveness of the program. "We'll track students as they go through to determine what's working," adds Martin. Additional monies for Q-STEP could then be granted from NSF for two more years, totaling $491,007 over the full five years of the grant.

"Literature shows that there are marked improvements in student performance the more experiential learning opportunities are offered," says Martin. "Instead of relying solely on lecture halls where professors act as the sole source of knowledge, we want to provide students with more active learning situations such as research opportunities in the lab - that's where people really flower."

Current first-year RutgersCamden students enrolled in science technology majors are encouraged to apply to this program now. According to Martin, when a student applies, he or she will be asked to disclose their academic strengths and weaknesses. "The answers to these questions will not affect admittance into the program. All RutgersCamden first-year students who plan on majoring in biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics or physics will have an equal chance," adds Martin.


Contact: Cathy Donovan
Rutgers University

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