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NSF Grant Awarded to Increase Inclusivity in STEM

Contributed by News on 10/18/19 

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This fall the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Ithaca College a five-year, $650,000 grant to recruit and retain low-income, academically talented computer science, mathematics, and physics/astronomy students. The grant will allow the college to award 14 scholarships, contribute to a positive campus climate and support engaging academic activities.

Studies have shown that in order to see greater creativity and innovation in STEM-related industries, diversity in the field and among industry leaders is key.

“We must start early to continue to build a large and diverse pipeline of students who will make an impact on the future of innovation and progress,” said Kelley Sullivan, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and principal investigator for the grant.

The grant also aligns with a key goal of the Ithaca Forever strategic plan: to become a national model for colleges committed to the values of diversity, equity and inclusion. Part of that aim is to develop a campus climate that ensures students feel supported and understood.

“Oftentimes when students leave a STEM-related program it is not because they weren’t capable or no longer interested in the field,” said Sullivan. “It is because they don’t feel comfortable in the department. There is a sense of not belonging.”

IC is looking for scholars to discover common ground and strengthen support for each other by encouraging students to connect with others from different backgrounds and experiences but who share a similar interest in STEM studies. To do this, Sullivan and her team — John Barr, professor in the Department of Computer Science; Matt Thomas, assistant professor in the Department of Mathematics; David Brown, professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics; and Stacia Zabusky, associate dean for Curriculum and Undergraduate Programs in the School of Humanities and Sciences — are working with IC staff and professors to develop a STEM community. Aspects will include a STEM residence hall floor and social events that will unite STEM students and create meaningful connections.

The grant will also provide academic supports and opportunities including a first-year seminar focused on transition-to-college, faculty and peer mentoring, and expanded tutoring support. To ready students for real-world experiences, they will receive paid attendance to a conference in their discipline, guaranteed research experience, and career-skills workshops and internships. 

IC will partner with companies like Advion (a producer of mass spectrometers) and Paychex (a payroll services company) to offer students tours, job shadowing and internships. Advion, headquartered in Ithaca, is a big supporter of STEM education. The company provides demonstrations at the local middle schools, conducts projects with Lansing and Ithaca high schools, and offers shadowing and internship opportunities. 

Jamey Jones, senior vice president of operations and technology at Advion, is looking forward to helping students gain invaluable experiences that will help them in their STEM careers. “A bachelor’s degree in STEM studies can take students in so many different directions,” said Jones. “My hope for our interns is they gain an appreciation for the real world of science and engineering and they find passion in the field, which will help them succeed.”

In the classroom, students will find personal attention from professors and an emphasis on employing research-based pedagogy. Classes are designed for students to feel comfortable taking risks and sharing their knowledge, research findings and experiences with their peers.

Mariah Flaim ’16 is an associate development program manager at Red Hat, an open-source software development company. She fondly remembers her experience at IC as one that was close knit and tailored to her specific needs. “Ithaca’s a smaller school. That means more one-on-one time with professors and life-long friendships with fellow students,” she said. “I gained not only the academic knowledge I needed for a job in computer science but interpersonal skills that are key for a successful career as well.”

The efforts of the grant will be studied by mathematics professor Matt Thomas. Program results and observations will be shared through papers and presentations so that other schools might adopt and adapt the efforts IC has taken to build an even stronger diverse and inclusive future of STEM professionals.

Additional NSF Grants for S-STEM
The college also received several other grants from the NSF within the last few months.

The college received a grant for more than $1.1 million through the Robert Noyce Scholarship Program, which aims to increase the number of highly qualified STEM educators. Building on the success of the first grant, this funding will expand recruitment efforts, improve student-centered instruction, foster a culture of continuous professional growth, and study teacher retention and success.  

Assistant professor of mathematics Matt Thomas received a $150,000 grant in collaboration with researchers at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and at the The Ohio State University to empower faculty to run online learning experiments to test the effectiveness of new content and innovative teaching strategies. Using this platform, instructors will be able to readily modify their materials in line with rapidly changing STEM fields and to adapt those materials to students' needs.

And associate professor of computer science Doug Turnbull has been awarded a four year, collaborative research grant from the NSF to study recommendation systems that will help promote local music scenes. The total grant award is for $220,000. Turnbull's goal is create a website called that recommends local events and generates personalized playlists on Spotify featuring music by local bands.

Last winter, Stephen Sweet, Dana Professor of Sociology, and Susan Ferguson, professor of sociology at Grinnell College, were awarded a $258,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for their project “Curriculum Mapping Tool for Sociology: Implementation, Assessment and Dissemination.” Sweet and Ferguson served on the American Sociological Association’s Task Force on the Undergraduate Major and developed the Curriculum Mapping Tool for Sociology (CMTS) to help departments evaluate program strengths and weaknesses with respect to the task force’s recommendations. NSF funding will enable the investigators to further develop and disseminate the CMTS, engage 150 sociology departments in program assessment, benchmark prevailing curriculum designs that exist across programs, and determine the impact of curriculum mapping on program revision efforts. If successful, the project has potential to serve as a model for curriculum advancement in other STEM disciplines.

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