People of SU / Science / Technology and Health

Building Support for STEM

Written by Tina Potterf

October 4, 2022

Inside a lab at the Sinegal Center

Image credit: Nodoka Kondo

National Science Foundation award will help fund new program to bolster recruitment and improve access to the College of Science and Engineering. 

A new program in the works at the College of Science and Engineering—led by four professors with funding from the National Science Foundation—will greatly bolster access to STEM education for low-income students, while providing a network of supporting services to best meet their needs.  

The $1.5 million NSF S-STEM Award will help build the Seattle University Math and Science Scholars (SUMSS), an S-STEM scholarship and support infrastructure for students who traditionally experience academic hardship and attrition due in part to the significant financial burden of higher education at a private university. The SUMSS program aims to improve recruitment, retention, graduation rate and career placement for these students and is a collaboration among the Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics departments, in partnership with the Dean’s Office and programs across campus. 

“This NSF S-STEM Award to support and mentor our students via research, professional formation and discernment will have a great impact to support student recruitment and success in the College of Science and Engineering. This project and its goals are highly aligned with our mission and is a recognition of the efforts of the teams involved to deliver on our institutional values,” says Dean Amit Shukla, PhD. “This also is a recognition of the need to support and diversify graduates in STEM areas, which is a priority for the CSE and SU. I commend the team for developing this successful proposal and know that their work will be a model for others to follow in supporting student success in STEM.”

Associate Professor of Biology Mark Jordan, PhD, is the principal investigator for SUMSS and says that this NSF award builds on existing funding but for the first time this aid is available to students in Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics. Another differentiating factor is the high value add of extending support outside of the college, all part of educating the whole person, the cornerstone of SU’s mission. 

“Seattle U already provides great support services for students in academics and career counseling. However, research shows that low-income and first-generation students are less likely than their peers to access these services,” explains Jordan. “The SUMSS program will connect the scholarship recipients with these services from the moment they arrive on campus. Long-term, we hope to facilitate a greater culture of access to these services, along with stronger connections among STEM faculty, advisors and academic and career service providers on campus.”

Beginning in 2023 and continuing each fall through 2026, a cohort will be selected, comprised of eight incoming freshmen from the departments of Biology, Chemistry and Mathematics, as well as Pre-Science. Each student will receive a scholarship of $10,000 per year for four years. “All SUMSS students will also participate in a research course in data science because this is a skill that is in high demand for all STEM employers in Washington,” says Jordan. 

During the first year, students will be introduced to a variety of campus services, including Learning Assistance Programs, the Career Engagement Office, the Office of Fellowships and Counseling and Psychological Services. “Past experience has taught us that a number of students are not fully aware of the support offered through these services or are hesitant to make use of them,” says Associate Professor of Mathematics McLean Sloughter, PhD, who is a co-principal investigator. “We aim to make students familiar with and comfortable with these existing support services.”

In year two, students will participate in an interdisciplinary research course, which will teach them how to apply data science techniques to analyze data from biology and chemistry studies and how to effectively communicate the results of their research, explains Sloughter. “And, throughout all four years, students will participate in a structured career discernment process, in which they will be given guidance as they reflect on their career goals and prepare themselves for those careers, including developing CVs and portfolios and applying for summer internships and research experiences.”

The professional development piece of this program is key, says the college’s Director and Assistant Dean of Student Academic Affairs Jennifer Coogan, MA, MEd, who is a co-principal investigator. 

“The benefit to SUMSS Scholars is a coordinated effort across the college and university to support an academically talented low-income student through graduation and not only be but feel career-ready in their field,” Coogan explains. “The lessons we will learn from this project can be shared with the college, as we have learned from our peers who have previously conducted STEM student retention research projects. Perhaps, similar programs will be repeated in our college or across the university.”

A central component of SUMSS is the cultivation of community, which begins with a summer orientation before the start of the academic year. 

“While the program is focused on community-building among the students in the program, it is frequently the case that some community building leads to more community building,” says Sloughter. “These students will introduce their other classmates to the folks they’ve gotten to know through this program. They’ll invite classmates to join them for study groups. They’ll be able to recommend to their peers the resources we’ve connected them with.”

Associate Teaching Professor of Chemistry Jennifer Sorensen, PhD, who is a co-principal investigator, says SUMSS will expand overall recruitment and career development within the college. 

“The NSF S-STEM program that is funding this project has a strong focus on workforce development. We are looking forward to collaborating with the Career Engagement Office to build stronger relationships with local employers and new internship opportunities for our scholars,” she says. “This work has the potential to benefit students across the college seeking internships and faculty looking to integrate relevant industry problems or practices in their courses.”

And, Sorensen notes, “Much more than giving students a scholarship check, the SUMSS program hopes to foster the conditions for our scholars to be incredibly successful, both academically and personally.”