STEM Ambassador’s Program to expand impact on and off campus By Elizabeth Wallace

Professors Elizabeth McEneaney from the University of Massachusetts College of Education and Margaret Riley from the Biology Department have received a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to continue and expand the campus’ Science Technology Engineering Mathematics Ambassador’s Program (STEM AP).

According to the organization’s website, the program seeks “to increase levels of retention and graduation of STEM students and increase the number of students who enroll in graduate studies or pursue careers in STEM fields.”

Specifically, the grant targets underrepresented groups including first-generation college students, students of color and those eligible for Pell Grants, all of whom are nationally underrepresented in STEM.

According to the program’s website, STEM AP started in 2014 with funding from the UMass President’s Office. The $987,000 grant from the NSF allows the program to grow on campus, while also increasing its impact off campus.

In addition to UMass, the grant will allow for partnerships with Holyoke Community College and UMass Boston to develop two models of the program tailored to those campuses.

According to the Director of STEM AP, Carolyn Gardner, Ph.D., within this grant, the program views itself as having two aims—improving upon the current program on campus to increase capacity while expanding to other campuses, and a significant research component building on other research looking at the variables impacting retention in the STEM majors.

Since STEM AP remains a relatively new program, part of the grant will be focused on evaluating the ways in which the program successfully serves its students, and the ways in which it can serve them better. It will be the first time the program embarks upon a complete evaluation of itself hoping to gather detailed information which will be helpful as it looks to broaden its impact on students and on the campus.

Left Avelino Amado. Right Paul Crouther.

New beginnings for STEM AP

The program’s administrative team consists entirely of people with backgrounds in STEM. Riley started the program within the biology department three years ago hoping to address some of the inequities in the pursuit of a STEM career, especially the scarcity of undergraduate research opportunities.

Gardner and Allison (Ally) Hunter, a research assistant, are trained as an engineer and a biologist, respectively. They’ve both chosen to use their scientific backgrounds to impact future engineers, scientists and mathematicians as STEM educators. Gardner serves as the program’s director spearheading the day-to-day operations while planning and executing long-term changes to it. Hunter, a doctoral candidate at UMass, will continue to work on the project after graduation as a post-doctoral researcher conducting an extensive longitudinal study using qualitative and quantitative data analyzing the types of contextual variables important in STEM retention.

As an education researcher, McEneaney plans to “document more systematically than [the program] has in the past…the effects of the program, the ways that students in the program are finding it supportive or not, so that as the years go by we can figure out ways to change and strengthen the program.” Additionally, she will be working on the expansion to Holyoke Community College and UMass Boston.

In her career as a high school mathematics and science teacher, McEneaney witnessed the disparities between females and males in the classroom in response to grades, in attitude toward academic achievement and in expressed enthusiasm in the subject, one of many experiences which drove her interest in equity within STEM.

STEM AP program

STEM AP program goals

An expanding component of STEM AP is introducing students to the possibilities of a career in teaching, in addition to professional scientific careers. McEneaney and Gardner discussed the importance of high school and college students’ exposure to teachers and professors who are like them, allowing for the students to more easily picture themselves in similar roles.

Additionally, the program hopes to increase their capacity through this grant, including having more research opportunities to meet the increase in participants. STEM AP will be working toward increasing its diversity with students with disabilities and LGBTQ+ students.

“The idea is that if we build an inclusive community of scholars, we want that definition of inclusive to mean everybody feels welcome in STEM,” Hunter said.

This semester, the program has increased their offerings for its first-year students with a course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE). Although there is only one section this semester (focusing on antibiotic resistance), the goal is to have numerous courses in the future with a variety of different topics.

Currently, the program works with approximately 18 faculty members throughout the STEM departments at UMass to place upperclassmen students in research laboratories. According to Hunter, there is a positive correlation between research involvement and retention in STEM.

Coralys Galindez, a freshman microbiology student in the program, conducted research on campus over the summer.

“This summer, I had the privilege to work alongside Ally Hunter on her research developing case studies that help students learn class topics by applying them to real-life situations,” Galindez said. “During my time in the lab, I acquired a lot of knowledge on how to use lab equipment, plating cell cultures techniques, and many other useful skills. Most importantly, this program allowed me to gain experience as an undergraduate in real-life research, which is very valuable in today's competitive environment. Moreover, I got the chance to meet a lot of new people who share the same interest as me and strive to be successful in their respective STEM fields.”

STEM AP’s definition of success consists of students staying within a STEM major, not necessarily the one the students originally chose. Hunter’s research will consider the science, technology, engineering and mathematics watershed, which acknowledges the numerous ways in which students may move around within STEM, including switching majors and taking time off from school before returning to the field.

Rashida Krigger, assistant to the director, spoke about the impact of STEM AP. After excelling at Springfield Technical Community College , she transferred to UMass. With the University’s limited resources for transfer students, Krigger did not flourish as she had at STCC and ultimately left school.

“Before I knew about STEM AP there was nothing that was going to make [coming back] better than last time,” Krigger says.

Now, working for the program, Krigger is seeing how the program has “helped other undergrads in STEM have a good trajectory, have the research experience they need and…gotten them to the place that I saw myself being in had I had this support system.

“I see myself in all of our students and I’m so happy to be providing the things that I lacked for them. And I’m really excited now for when I do go back to have this resource, to have this community and know where I’m going,” she said.

Networks and support systems

One of the resources the program provides for its students is a strong network of mentors, including undergraduates and graduates. All first-year students in the program are matched to a junior or senior mentor; graduate students provide additional mentoring.

Shelby Phillips, one of the program’s students, credits this support network with encouraging her to have the confidence to pursue a degree in biology.

“[It] is hard sometimes to stop doubting myself and what I am capable of, but this summer I got the opportunity to live on campus and do research in a lab because of this program,” Philips said. “My lab trusted me with real data and that really helped boost my confidence because I knew that I was being trusted to do things with samples that took a long period of time to get.”

Phillips added, “I am really thankful for the STEM Ambassadors program not just because of the connections they can provide me with, but because of the close mentor-to-student relationship they offer.”

Gardner, Riley, Hunter and McEneaney spoke of the importance of giving students in STEM, especially those from underrepresented populations, the support system necessary to develop the confidence in their abilities as scientists, engineers or mathematicians.

Riley talked about the long-term hope for the program: “Right now, we’re targeting those in greatest need. But, my vision would be anybody who applies to this University would have access to this program. And I’d like it to be at UMass Boston, and at UMass Lowell, and maybe across the nation…Could we have this in every public institution of higher learning in Massachusetts in another five years? That’s my goal.”

Elizabeth Wallace can be contacted at erwallace@umass.edu or followed on Twitter @ER_Wallace.

Photos by Erica Lowenkron and STEM AP program.

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.