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March 18, 2011

Grant helps Kearns Center expand support for science and math programs

The David T. Kearns Center for Leadership and Diversity in Arts, Sciences and Engineering was recently awarded a $598,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to fund scholarships for students in the areas of science and mathematics. The grant will allow the Kearns Center to expand upon its already successful Science and Math Scholars Program, which provides support to first-generation college, low-income, and underrepresented minority undergraduates through financial aid, intensive advising, and tutoring.

The goal of the NSF program is to improve student outcomes in three areas: retention to major declaration, academic improvement over time, and degree attainment.

“The key benefit of this grant is that it supports student interaction with graduate students and faculty,” says James Farrar, a professor of chemistry and the principal investigator for the grant.

Beth Olivares, director of the Kearns Center, says the new grant illustrates the strength of the center’s relationship with faculty in the sciences.

“The engagement of faculty in the learning process has been instrumental for our students. One hundred percent of our Kearns Scholars have graduated within five years, and many of them have gone on to attend graduate school,” says Olivares. “I have no doubt that their interactions with faculty are a strong influencing factor.”

Five years ago, the chemistry department worked with the Kearns Center and the Office of Minority Student Affairs to create a formalized study group system for students. The department hires graduate students to lead study groups that meet twice each week and are designed to help students enrolled in the department’s large introductory courses. They’ve found that the extra academic support has led to improved grades in these courses and has kept students interested and engaged in the discipline.

This spring, 10 undergraduates across all of the scientific disciplines will be selected to receive scholarship funds through the grant. The students are eligible for loan forgiveness or tuition assistance for summer classes, in addition to the yearlong academic assistance provided through the Kearns Center. Having the option of taking summer courses, Farrar says, can help ease a student’s workload during the semester.

For more than a decade, the Kearns Center has worked to develop educational pipeline programs that work with students from middle school through the doctoral degree. In 2010, the center received nearly $1 million in grants that serve the more than 300 students in each of its 11 programs, which include Upward Bound, Upward Bound Math/Science, and the Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, which are funded through the U.S. Department of Education’s TRIO programs for low-income students. The center also houses the Xerox Scholars program for engineering students and several NSF-funded scholarship programs. In addition to the academic services it provides, the center coordinates graduate student recruitment and retention efforts.

“This group of students is very ambitious,” Farrar says. “What we’ve found is that their background can be somewhat weak, but these students have high potential and just need a little additional support.”

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