Often heralded as a national model for diversifying the sciences, the program has helped hundreds of high-achieving students from minority backgrounds earn advanced degrees in science, math, engineering, and related fields.
Now there’s another question: How can universities like UMBC help a wider array of students, the ones who don’t have the top SAT scores or the very highest GPAs? How can they scale a program like Meyerhoff to help the masses, the students in the middle?
A Foot in the Door
Students like Shehar Awan. Shehar’s a biology major who transferred to UMBC from a community college. He’s part of a newer effort at UMBC called STEM BUILD,
funded by the National Institutes of Health to study how universities can help a broad group of students aspire to, and succeed in, biomedical and behavioral research fields.
The first time Shehar was ever exposed to research, he told us, was during a summer bridge program through STEM BUILD. It made him feel more confident, he said, because it taught him lab skills like how to use a pipette. Then, when the academic year started, he felt like he already had a foot in the door to get the kind of research opportunities he wanted on campus. That’s not always easy for transfer students like him.
UMBC is one of 10 universities that are part of the NIH study. The program offers support for students through summer programs, peer networks, tutors and mentors, and living-learning communities.
Unlike other, prestigious scholarship programs, STEM BUILD focuses on undergraduates who are at risk of not completing degrees in those disciplines. Fewer than two out of five students who enter college intending to major in a STEM field complete a STEM degree.
So far, early results have shown promise in keeping more students in STEM disciplines, helping them earn higher grade-point averages, and connecting them with more research opportunities, said Kathy Sutphin, assistant dean for academic affairs in the College of Natural and Mathematical Sciences at UMBC.
What’s making the most difference? Here’s what Shehar and the other students we talked to told us: Being part of a supportive community of peers. Getting a head start on basic lab skills like pipetting. Having tutors and mentors to demystify the world of research.
Taken together, it makes Jamie Mushrush, a biochemistry and molecular biology major, feel like less of a stranger in a strange land.
Sciences aren’t always written or taught in the most accessible way, she said. “It’s intimidating.”
But people in the program taught her things like how to write effective abstracts and that helped her build trust with the university researchers she works with. It reassured her, too.
“Learning the ins and outs of the research community make it easier to feel like you are supposed to be here.”