Leveling the Playing Field in STEM

A nationally funded project aims to boost outcomes among low-income students in science, technology, engineering and math.

scientists on books holding globe and looking through microscope.

How can we improve retention and graduation rates among low-income students pursuing degrees in STEM? A multidisciplinary UB research team has been awarded a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant to find out.

On a larger scale, the project, led by principal investigator Rajan Batta, associate dean for faculty affairs and diversity in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, aims to help fulfill the national need for more well-trained professionals in STEM fields.

Social justice awareness, hands-on projects

This much is already known: Students underrepresented in STEM programs do better if they experience positive psychosocial factors, such as a sense of belonging and self-efficacy. But less is known about how much of a role other factors, like social justice awareness, play in ensuring their success.

To accomplish their goals, the investigators are developing a program that uses an inclusive learning community, which Batta, a SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, calls the most significant aspect of the program. It will offer courses that examine the societal impacts of engineering and computer science, and put social justice theory into practice by working with a community partner on a social-justice themed project.

The program also will provide mentoring, professional development, experiential learning and research opportunities with faculty and community partners. These activities will be integrated with existing support activities and a new Social Impact Summer Research Program to foster academic success and retention.

“The most significant part of the project, for me, is increasing the active engagement of student participants in hands-on action and/or community-based research projects,” says co-investigator Letitia Thomas, assistant dean for diversity in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “Engagement in social justice-infused curricula and training is also significant.”

Aiming for permanence

The $1.5 million will be spent over five years to fund scholarships and provide support services to 25 full-time students who are pursuing undergraduate degrees in engineering or computer science, or master’s degrees in biomedical engineering or engineering science.

First-year undergraduates will receive four-year scholarships and MS students will receive two-year scholarships. Students will receive up to $10,000 per year, and can use the funding for any educational expenses.

The program will begin in the Fall 2023 semester and is expected to run through 2027. However, the team has larger ambitions. Says Thomas, “We are hopeful that this model can be institutionalized and become a part of UB’s regular offerings to students.”