NSF Grant Program Will Benefit Low-Income High-Achieving STEM Students

May 3, 2021

By Holly Hinson

A new five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant project that began April 1 will provide additional opportunities for low-income, high-achieving students to pursue Computer Science & Engineering (CSE) degrees. Students from low-income backgrounds often work more hours, have fewer social connections, and are less likely to take a full-time course load or enroll continuously from one semester to the next due to financial concerns. These factors adversely impact retention and graduation prospects.

The $1 million project, “Scholarships, Community, and High-impact Practices to Improve Undergraduate Student Success in Computer Science and Engineering students,” will fund two cohorts of five first-year CSE students with up to four years of scholarship support, and two cohorts of five transfer or junior students with up to two-year scholarships.

Four scholarships have been offered to students so far, and scholarship applications are still being accepted on a rolling basis until all 10 scholarship allocations have been made for this year, with an additional 10 for next year. For an application, visit the CSE S-STEM application website.

The project aims to improve both STEM retention rates and overall graduation rates of scholars through exposure to improved computer science and engineering gateway courses and access to state-of-the-art technological tools and resources. Linking scholarships with effective supporting activities including mentoring, undergraduate research experiences, service learning, graduate school preparation, and outreach efforts can support more low-income, high-achieving students successfully completing degree programs and be prepared for the local and national technological workforce.

Dr. Wei Zhang, Chairperson & Professor, Computer Science and Engineering (CSE), is Principal Investigator for the project while Co-PIs include Dr. Emmanuel Collins, Dean of Speed School, Dr. Dr. Andrew Karem, Assistant Professor, CSE, and Dr. Jennifer Anderson, with the Till Teaching and Innovation Lab at Delphi Center. Zhang emphasized the project is a team effort where each investigator is playing an important role.

Zhang said “gateway courses,” taught by Karem, for example, are important to help bridge the gap for low-income students who often have no prior experience in programming or computer science. New courses have been added including Introduction to Database, Introduction to Software Engineering and Introduction to Python Programming.

“We want students to be better prepared for their first co-op,” said Zhang. “In addition, with this grant we can support up to five undergraduate TAs (teaching assistants) who will work with freshmen including S-STEM scholars in small groups, especially lab sessions,” he said. “They can lead discussions and brainstorm with students to help them develop an algorithmic structure of the program and how to solve problems.”

Another barrier often faced by lower-income students, said Zhang, is a lack of family support.

Most are first generation college students,” he said. “We can increase student engagement with faculty mentoring and bi-weekly cohort meetings. The faculty mentoring can offer high level advice on careers and academic preparation in different computer science areas while also working with the co-op office to coordinate co-ops and job placement. In addition, when they develop a cohort or learning community, they don’t feel like the only person in the department that doesn’t know something, because they’re not and should not be alone.”

Zhang said that he believes there is a lot of financial need out there.

“Based on CSE department data I received, we have a large percentage, almost 200 students, including both undergrad and grad, that are Pell Grant-eligible, a fact even more important since the pandemic, when many families might have lost some of their income,” he said. “The bottom line is we want students not to have to worry about the financial aid, and to study more and work less. Their main job is to learn and be prepared to find a full-time good-paying job after graduation.”

With the efforts supported by this grant, Zhang said he hopes that Speed School can attract and graduate more students in STEM, especially CSE because of the industry need in the region. “There is high demand and these are high-paying jobs.”