Montclair State University administrative and educational leaders have secured $2.6 million in National Science Foundation (NSF) grants for innovative internship programs designed to connect students and their families to careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – or STEM.
“With this new funding we will advance efforts to address underrepresentation of diverse groups in STEM, a challenge that may be exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Amy Tuininga, director of the PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies. “This program will help to ensure future employment is diverse and inclusive – a crucial step forward in our ability to solve problems together as a society.”
The key to the projects is the PSEG Institute for Sustainability Studies (PSEG ISS) Green Teams program. For the past four summers, the Green Teams have provided a training ground and diversity pipeline for long-term professional development in STEM education by bringing together talented, transdisciplinary teams to design and deliver innovative sustainability solutions for a range of public and private organizations. The Green Teams strive to elevate awareness of sustainability opportunities and potential at the local, national and global levels.
$2M Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) Grant
The first award is a $2 million NSF Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSI) grant, the University’s first HSI grant. The grant program, titled “Partnered Internships: Including Families, Faculty, and Industry in STEM Education to Improve Success in STEM Career Pathways,” begins June 1, 2020, and will be led by PSEG ISS Director Amy Tuininga. It will allow the Green Teams program to better engage Hispanic STEM students with hands-on, experiential learning opportunities – and extend these learning opportunities to their families and corporate and community partners. The leadership team includes Sociology Department Chair Yasemin Besen-Cassino, College of Science and Mathematics Dean Lora Billings, and Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Nina Goodey as co-principal investigators. In addition, Assistant Vice President for Hispanic Serving Initiatives Katia Paz Goldfarb will participate as senior personnel.
“This is huge,” says Goldfarb. “Since being designated a Hispanic-Serving Institution in 2016, the University has demonstrated its commitment and a responsibility for our diverse student population. This grant is a recognition of the strong, positive impact that Montclair State and our Green Teams program can have on an underrepresented community within a field of study that is vital to our collective future.”
The study funded by the HSI grant will span five years and is designed to uncover the process of student decision-making, and the potential biases and perceptions of STEM education and careers.
“We do not make decisions in a vacuum: we are embedded in society,” says Besen-Cassino. “Our families, friends and significant others play a significant role in what major we pick and what industry we decide to work in.”
To understand why students choose and remain in STEM majors, the grant team will be conducting focus groups and surveys with families, students, faculty and industry partners.
“As an access institution, Montclair State is perfectly suited to bring together aspiring students and their families with top scientists, researchers and corporate partners in a variety of important technical fields,” says Billings. “I am proud of the success our Green Teams have had over the past four years and excited by the opportunity we have to empower a new generation of scientists through meaningful hands-on experiences.”
$600K Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) Grant
The second NSF award is a $600,000 Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) grant titled “Developing STEM Literacy and Career Paths through Inclusive Team Internships,” that will begin September 1, 2020. The program, led by Goodey, is designed to improve STEM literacy for students who are non-STEM majors through their participation in the Green Teams. The interdisciplinary leadership team includes Tuininga and Elizabeth Emery, professor of Modern Languages and Literatures, as co-principal investigators.
“What I love most about the grant is the way it highlights the importance of transdisciplinary collaboration in solving real-world problems,” says Emery. “Each Green Team is composed of students from different backgrounds who bring an array of skills and perspectives to solving sustainability challenges.”
“Because the structural model of higher education obliges students to declare a ‘major,’ we tend to forget that most students come to college with a whole range of interests and experiences that they continue to pursue in parallel with their major field,” adds Emery. “Sustainability is one of those activities. Many of the students involved in community-based sustainability initiatives are not necessarily STEM majors.They may be art, language, public health or anthropology majors and don’t necessarily see that a passionate interest in sustainability might lead to a career in the sciences or in industry.”
“When team members from different majors and backgrounds work together on challenging problems, they come up with creative and novel solutions to sustainability problems. Chemistry majors learn from English majors about how to work as a team, analyze texts and communicate clearly, and English majors learn from the chemists about energy, experimental design, data collection and data analysis,” adds Goodey. “The Green Team model provides students from all majors with insights into how they can effectively apply their skills, interests and major-specific knowledge in STEM workplaces and organizations.”
Tying it all together
Together the two grants tell a holistic story, says Goldfarb. “They see the student as a whole, not just to teach them science but to look at the student in a comprehensive way and give them and their families the support to succeed.”
In addition, the grants bring together the University’s designations as a R2 Doctoral University – High Research Activity and as a Hispanic-Serving Institution. “This is tying everything together,” says Goldfarb.
“It’s more important than ever to help support those students who are most vulnerable, those who most struggle already to make their way through the STEM academic coursework into STEM careers,” says Vice Provost for Research and Dean of The Graduate School Scott Herness. “These are the students who leave STEM in high numbers already, and the current situation is likely going to increase the pressure on these students to leave.”
Adds Tuininga, “We hope that the hands-on learning experiences and internships offered in partnership with corporations, municipalities and other organizations will help these students to move toward completion of their STEM degrees and into STEM careers.”
Story by Staff Writer Mary Barr Mann.