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By Andy Hirsch
LEWISBURG, Pa. — As both a chemistry professor and the dean of Bucknell's College of Arts and Sciences, George Shields has seen the spark in the eyes of student researchers on the brink of discovery.
"It's really an exciting thing to experience," Shields said. "Students become so committed to doing their research because they realize they are on the forefront of finding out something that no one else has figured out before."
But Shields also knows how critical the first year of college can be for students majoring in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). Students who chose to leave a STEM major often make that decision prior to the start of their sophomore year.
"The reality is, majoring in a STEM field is challenging. Our K-12 educational system is mostly structured around memorizing, so students get to college and they think being a good student means being good at memorizing the material," Shields explained. "The critical thinking and communications skills they gain through actually doing the research is very transformative."
Shields has created a program designed to make that transition easier at Bucknell, and to increase retention rates in STEM fields. The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded him $450,000 to launch the Bucknell STEM Scholars program. During each of the next five summers, the program will bring 19 incoming first-year Bucknell students to campus for five weeks of hands-on experience. They'll work on undergraduate research projects alongside faculty and upperclassman. Each group of students will spend an additional 10 weeks on campus during a subsequent summer. The students will be paid and provided housing.
"We want to build up their confidence and show these students that they can do the work, that they belong here at Bucknell," said Mathematics Professor Lynn Breyfogle, an associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences and a co-investigator on the grant. "Then, when they come back to start the semester, they have this amazing research experience to build upon."
"We're trying to get these students started in research, to begin to think like a scientist," added Chemistry Professor Dee Casteel, associate dean of faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences and co-investigator on the grant. "But there's also a social aspect to this. These students will know their way around campus, they'll have already formed relationships with other students, they'll know some of the faculty."
While the Bucknell STEM Scholars program will primarily focus on retaining STEM students overall, it will place an emphasis on recruiting and retaining women and underrepresented students, including students from low-income families, ethnic and racial minority students, first-generation college students and students with disabilities.
"We know that, for a variety of reasons, those are the students who are most likely to switch out of a STEM major," Shields said. "We want to look at them specifically, to make sure we're doing what we can to help them succeed."
Shields also believes the initiative will increase interest in the STEM fields at Bucknell overall, even for students who aren't part of the new program. His conclusion is based on experience; Shields has had success starting similar programs at two other institutions prior to coming to Bucknell, and has now received more than $1 million in NSF funding for those programs alone.
"In my experience with similar programs at other colleges, its mere existence attracted more students. I suspect we'll see the same thing happen here," said Shields, "because it demonstrates the commitment we're making to undergraduate research."