Fostering success of STEM transfer students at WMU is focus of nearly $1M NSF grant

Contact: Erin Flynn
A professor holds an object in a flame.

A chemistry class at WMU prior to pandemic health and safety guidelines being implemented.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Helping transfer students thrive in chemistry and biochemistry majors is the focus of a nearly $1 million National Science Foundation grant awarded to a team of Western Michigan University professors.

"The S-STEM program at the National Science Foundation is specifically to support low-income but academically talented students in STEM fields," says Dr. Megan Grunert Kowalske, chair of the Department of Chemistry and principal investigator on the grant, who aims to offer more support for transfer students at Western. "We have a lot of great programs in place at Western, like First-Year Experience and all of these freshman orientation things, but when you show up in January as a sophomore or as a junior, there just isn’t that same sense of belonging or cohort-building."

The five-year NSF grant will fund scholarships for both undergraduate and graduate students in the chemistry and biochemistry programs, as well as establish cohorts to foster community and a sense of belonging among transfer students.

"This project is strongly aligned with our college's commitment to support a diverse group of students as they transition from community college to WMU," says Dr. Carla Koretsky, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

"We know that the transfer population tends to be underrepresented in many ways. They're often first-generation students, they're more likely to be coming from underrepresented minority backgrounds, they're often low income to begin with," Kowalske adds. "So, they have more hurdles in the way to successfully complete a degree."

The project will focus on recruiting, retaining and supporting future chemists and biochemists through structured and targeted interventions, such as workshops to form connections with other students and faculty members as well as resources to help members of the cohort seek out research opportunities and internships.

"They have a chance to see what a career would be like and make more connections so that when they graduate, they hopefully can find a really fulfilling job," says Kowalske. The project will also include faculty programming to foster inclusive mentoring practices, incorporate evidence-based instructional practices into courses and support diverse students.

It will also involve community outreach, such as a service project, that students in the cohort will direct and drive. "I've done a lot of research on women and minorities that are in science, and they tend to have a really strong drive to give back," Kowalske says. "They felt that somebody helped them to get where they are and they want to continue paying that forward."

While a select group of students will join the cohorts over the five-year duration of the project, the resources and programming developed will be available to all students.

"I think a lot of effort in the past has been to teach students that are underrepresented how to be successful in the system as it is," says Kowalske. "My perspective is that we need to disrupt the system as it is. It’s not built for these students. So they keep getting messages that they shouldn’t be here or they don’t belong when, in fact, it's just a broken system."

The first cohort will begin in January 2021. Anyone interested in applying should contact Kowalske. More information will be released when available on the Department of Chemistry's webpage.

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