Oxy Awarded $1 Million NSF Grant To Address U.S. Shortage of STEM Graduates

Jim Tranquada

A five-year, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation will make it possible to build on the success of an Occidental College program addressing the national shortage of STEM graduates by recruiting academically talented but financially needy students during their first year in college.

Now in its fifth year, the Creating Opportunities in Science and Mathematics for Occidental Students (COSMOS) program has had a 93 percent success rate, producing students who have enrolled in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) graduate programs and been hired at STEM-intensive firms such as IBM and Twitter.

The new NSF grant will enable the interdisciplinary COSMOS program to build on that success, applying the lessons learned to increase the number of underrepresented students majoring in biology, biochemistry, chemistry, cognitive science, computer science, geology, mathematics and physics, says Professor of Mathematics and Associate Dean for Curricular Affairs Ron Buckmire, one of the project’s co-principal investigators.

“While we have learned much over the past five years, our goal has not changed: We want to create a national model of effective intervention strategies that can increase the number of STEM graduates by accessing a relatively untapped pool of talent--first-generation, underrepresented and female students," Buckmire says.

STEM jobs are growing at 1.7 times the rate of non-STEM jobs, but American schools are not producing enough candidates to fill them. Only 16 percent of high school seniors are interested in pursuing STEM careers, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Next fall, Buckmire and his co-investigators—Carmel Levitan, associate professor of cognitive science; Justin Li , assistant professor of cognitive science and computer science; Gretchen North, professor of biology; Janet Scheel, professor of physics; and Aleksandra Sherman, associate professor of cognitive science—will start recruiting the first of two cohorts of 10 academically promising, low-income first-year students interested in science or mathematics to receive annual scholarships of up to $10,000 each for three years.

Increasing the size of the annual scholarship from $8,000 to $10,000 is based on one of the lessons learned from the first phase of the COSMOS program, which was funded by an NSF grant received in 2015. Increased financial support not only reduces student debt—by an average of $23,100 for previous participants—but gives students more freedom to focus on coursework, research, and leadership opportunities.

The other pillars of the program are:

  • Attracting students to STEM majors through a new 4-unit, writing intensive, first-year seminar that exposes them to the ways that STEM is used to address real-world problems in their own communities. “Giving first-year students a project-based seminar option that is focused on STEM will allow them to form connections with one another. We’re designing this seminar based on research about the pedagogical approaches that best support retention for students who have traditionally been minoritized in STEM,” Levitan says.
  • Utilizing a proactive and inclusive approach to student advising, designed to send students clear messages that they are capable and to ensure that they are connected to resources that will help them succeed in class and understand that they belong at Occidental and in STEM majors. Some 25 STEM faculty at Occidental have volunteered to serve as advisors to first-year program participants.
  • Guaranteeing all program participants funding for a mentored research or internship experience at such places as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory during their sophomore year. “We found that students having an experiential learning opportunity—either through Occidental’s Summer Research Program or an internship—was transformational,” North says.
  • Teaching program participants oral and written communication skills in multiple media modalities, data analysis and data presentation in a new junior-year “Presenting Science” seminar open to all STEM majors at the College. Program participants will also have funding to attend a conference to present results from their sophomore-year research, applying the communication skills developed in the junior seminar.
  • Developing program participants as STEM leaders by giving them the opportunity to be peer mentors for younger students via roles as teaching assistants, STEM disciplinary mentors, and/or within supplemental instruction programs.

The grant will also fund a research project that will track two entire first-year classes from the summer before they enter Occidental through graduation. “Our hypothesis is that an age-structured cohort will provide younger students with inspiration and mentorship and older students with leadership skills and a deepened understanding of scientific practices that will inform their subsequent education and careers,” Sherman says.