NSF awards Northeastern Illinois University research award in first HSI competition

Northeastern Illinois University is one of 31 institutions to earn the first batch of research grants awarded in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Improving Undergraduate STEM Education: Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program (HSI Program). The 31 projects total approximately $45 million in funding.

Northeastern’s five-year, $1.5 million grant will fund a learning community called Agua en Comunidades Experimentales (ACE), which translates to Water in Research Communities. The ACE learning community will include social supports, scientific training and research experiences related to water science, and will evaluate the impact of the ACE learning community on student success in introductory STEM courses as well as student retention in STEM degree programs.

The program, which will launch in October, is under the direction of Professor of Earth Science Laura Sanders, Professor of Psychology Maureen Erber, Associate Professor of Biology Pamela Geddes, Associate Professor of Psychology Shannon Saszik and Associate Professor of Earth Science Kenneth Voglesonger.

“We have a hypothesis that creating a learning community will help students continue and succeed in STEM, and we are going to test that hypothesis,” Sanders said. “Learning communities are nothing new. Research already shows that they improve student outcomes. But we are among the first to create a learning community that focuses explicitly on students at a Hispanic-Serving Institution who both placed into developmental courses and want to major in STEM.”

This project targets students who are taking developmental courses at Northeastern and may have to take a few semesters of additional courses before they can begin the coursework toward their major. Some students are discouraged by the extra work and choose other paths.

“We are going to find out for certain whether this model works,” Sanders said. “If it does, we have the opportunity to change the face of STEM, and that is exciting.”

Northeastern’s program will actively recruit from the Summer Bridge Program starting in Summer 2019. Any student—even a transfer student—who meets the criteria of being a freshman, places into at least one developmental course, and has an interest in majoring in STEM may apply. The first ACE cohort next fall will have 20 students.

NSF’s HSI Program invests in projects that build capacity and increase retention and graduation rates for STEM students at HSIs. It also aims to build capacity at HSIs with little or no prior NSF funding.

“NSF has a long history of funding individual researchers and projects at HSIs,” said Jim Lewis, acting NSF assistant director for Education and Human Resources. “This new program seeks to support growth at HSIs that have traditionally lacked federal resources, to assure that they can encourage the development of scientists and engineers.”

Congress directed NSF to award grants to Hispanic-Serving Institutions. As a result, NSF built on decades of collaborative work with the broader community as well as lawmakers to find ways to improve the quality of undergraduate STEM education at HSIs.

“In designing the HSI Program, NSF sought input from various stakeholders. We funded conferences and conducted listening sessions with students, faculty, deans, and heads of professional organizations,” Lewis said. One of those conferences took place at Northeastern in May 2018. “We also received advice from 16 HSI campus leaders representing diverse geographic regions, public and private institutions and large and small schools. This valuable input helped us develop a robust program that aligns with NSF’s commitment to increase access, particularly for groups traditionally underrepresented in STEM.”

Northeastern is currently executing 15 projects funded by the National Science Foundation, up from four in 2014.

Top photo: El Centro hosts a National Science Foundation conference on enhancing undergraduate STEM education at Hispanic-Serving Institutions in May 2018.

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El Centro hosts a National Science Foundation conference on enhancing undergraduate STEM education at Hispanic-Serving Institutions in May 2018.
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