Helping STEM Pioneers Succeed

Professor of Environmental Management working with student behind two beakers filled with green liquid.

College often presents a distinct series of hurdles for first-generation students. A group of Montclair State researchers recently received funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to address some of these barriers with a project that aims to increase science literacy and enrollment in STEM classes for first-year, first-generation students (those who are the first in their families to attend college).

Beginning in January, Biology Professor and Principal Investigator Dirk Vanderklein, along with Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Nina Goodey, Earth and Environmental Studies Professor Joshua Galster, and Julie Dalley, Research Academy for University Learning’s assistant director, will work to provide a pathway to future STEM success for up to 200 first-generation students. The objectives of the project, funded by the NSF’s Department of Undergraduate Education, are to increase science literacy of undeclared, first-year, first-generation students and to encourage them to embark on STEM majors at the University.

The team hopes to achieve these goals with an integrated, three-pronged approach that includes a newly designed science literacy course; faculty and peer mentoring activities that nurture a supportive environment for STEM study; and access to enhanced support and career counseling services from the University’s Center for Advising and Student Transitions (CAST).

The professors will work with the center to identify students who meet project criteria. The first cohort of students will begin in fall 2017 and will take the two-semester science literacy course.

“We’ll also create a new student learning community for each cohort of students called STEM Pioneers,” says Vanderklein. “It will offer first-generation students with an interest in the sciences, but with no clear plan to pursue that interest, exposure to scientific inquiry and possibilities.”

Peer mentors and faculty who were first-generation students themselves will provide additional support built around belonging, learning and careers.

“During the course of this program, we hope to come up with materials that other institutions can use to improve the success of first-generation students in the sciences,” Vanderklein explains.