Expanding STEM at Carolina

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is looking to change the face of science, technology, engineering and math – by continuing to add more diverse faces in those fields.

Carolina was one of three universities jointly awarded a $7.75 million grant this week for STEM education support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), an elite private medical organization that funds scientists and educational programs across the country. The funding will allow UNC-Chapel Hill; the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC); and the Pennsylvania State University to enhance existing programs that increase the number of college students – particularly underrepresented, low-income and first-generation students – in STEM fields.

Carolina will use the grant money to expand and evaluate its Chancellor’s Science Scholars program, which was launched in 2013 and provides scholarships, mentoring and other support to students interested in science, technology, engineering and math. Earlier this year at the White House, Chancellor Carol L. Folt announced that she would double the program from its inaugural target of a class of 20 students per year to 40 students per year.

“Carolina’s investment in these bright students is helping the United States build a diverse workforce of problem solvers and thinkers who are capable of addressing our nation’s biggest problems,” Folt said. “With this grant from HHMI, we’re proud that we are charting a new course for how to train the next generation of great scientists and engineers.”

The Chancellor’s Science Scholars program is modeled after the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at UMBC, which was created in 1988 to train underrepresented minorities in STEM fields. Originally focused on African American males, the Meyerhoff program later opened to all extremely bright and motivated students while retaining its goal of increasing the diversity of students who continue on to STEM careers. While the program has been extremely successful at UMBC, other universities have struggled to replicate its success.

Although UNC-Chapel Hill and Penn State’s programs are based on the Meyerhoff program, the goal of the grant is to adapt the Meyerhoff model so that it works best at each campus, developing a blueprint that can be used by other top universities around the nation. They will gather data about how the students learn and collaborate, how the university communities around them contribute and benefit from the programs, and whether the students face similar challenges and pressures at each school.

The schools will work together over the next five years to evaluate the effectiveness of each of their programs with the ultimate goal of developing a national model for how other universities can expand their own STEM programs for underrepresented students.

“This is the right thing for UNC-Chapel Hill to do,” said Joe Templeton,Venable Professor of Chemistry and special assistant to the chancellor who spearheaded the grant application. ”UMBC has been so generous in sharing their expertise with us every step along the way.”

The announcement of the grant comes on the heels of Association of American Universities’ selection of UNC-Chapel Hill as one of eight universities to serve as project sites for the association’s three-year initiative to improve the quality of undergraduate education in STEM fields.

“Training the best scientists is critical now, yet our talent pool is shrinking,” said Mark Peifer, Hooker Distinguished Professor of Biology at UNC. “If we are going to solve the world’s problems, we need everybody at the table.”

By Thania Benios, UNC News Services.

Published May 21, 2014.