Persisting in Science

Grant will provide scholarships and academic support to UC Riverside sophomores in STEM fields

UCR Distinguished Professor of Genetics Susan Wessler works with students in the Neil A. Campbell Science Learning Laboratory. Photo by Lonnie Duka

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (www.ucr.edu) — The University of California, Riverside has received a five-year, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to provide scholarships, academic support, research experience and internships for a small group of sophomores majoring in science.

The pilot project, known as PERSIST (Promoting Engagement, Retention and Success in STEM Training), will help 12 sophomores who demonstrate financial need each year, for a total of 60 scholarships over five years. Each student will receive a $10,000 scholarship.

The funding will build upon the success UC Riverside’s College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences has had with first-year learning communities, which bring together small groups of first-year students, placing them in the same science and math classes and providing extra academic support.

Graduation rates have nearly doubled in the college for learning community participants and first-quarter GPAs for those in learning communities have averaged about a third of a letter grade better.

The PERSIST National Science Foundation grant builds on that success and focuses on sophomores because data shows that students majoring in the STEM fields are most likely to drop out as freshman or sophomores.

For example, about 40 percent of students who enter UC Riverside intending to major in STEM fields drop out of those fields within their first two years, according to the most recent data available. In the third year only about 10 percent more students drop out.

“The key really is the first two years, especially for our first-generation and low-income students,” said Michael McKibben, divisional dean of student academic affairs in the College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences and the proposal’s primary author. “We have made great progress in the first year. Now, with this grant, we will be able to start to address the second year.  Our ultimate goal is to reduce the rate of lower division student attrition in STEM majors.”

In addition to McKibben, others involved with the project are: Susan Wessler, a distinguished professor of genetics; Marsha Ing, an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education; and Jack Eichler, an associate teaching professor in the Department of Chemistry.

The scholarships will decrease the need for low-income students to work part-time and increase their opportunities to be involved in second year undergraduate research and internships.

The academic support will include activities such as a research methodology course, peer mentoring and career exploration workshops with alumni, including a biotechnology career exploration workshop at the Keck Graduate Institute in Claremont, which offers graduate degrees that prepare students for the bioscience industry.

Part of the reason for partnering with the Keck Graduate Institute is to expose the students to the broad range of jobs available to graduates with STEM degrees. Many incoming UC Riverside students come in intent on going to medical school, without knowing or thinking about the much wider range of jobs available, Wessler said.

Participants will be selected from second-year students who went through the first-year learning community and started their freshman year in pre-calculus. These students tend to have lower graduation rates in STEM compared to students who arrive ready to take calculus.

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