Agriculture News

December 12, 2016

NSF grant funds Purdue research into STEM student success

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - A team of researchers based at Purdue University has received a $973,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for a study aimed at helping students of low socioeconomic status succeed in scientific, technological, engineering and mathematical (STEM) fields.

The Rising Scholars program would augment Purdue's existing mentoring and counseling programs with additional support services throughout the participating students' undergraduate careers.

Robert Stwalley, assistant clinical professor of agricultural and biological engineering and principal investigator, said the study could help increase the number of low socio-economic status students pursuing careers in STEM fields.

"What we're trying to do is something very practical," Stwalley said. "We're trying to bolt onto things the university already does. We are not looking to replace the students' existing support networks but to add to them."

Stwalley said existing admissions standards for highly competitive STEM fields typically include advanced placement test results, high school grade-point averages, interviews and essays, but do not take into account whether an applicant has a strong support system of adult mentors and role models who could motivate and guide the student to a successful academic career.

As a result, some students of low socioeconomic status who could do well in a rigorous STEM program are instead directed to other majors.

"Work conducted by Purdue and the Gallup organization provides a strong indication that support networks for students within higher education contribute significantly to student satisfaction with regard to their overall collegiate experience," Stwalley said. "The program we are proposing will attempt to select strongly supported students of low socioeconomic status for engineering study who were denied direct admission into engineering and sent to exploratory studies."

Students participating in the Rising Scholars program will be required to participate in structured support activities, including regular meetings and special projects with agricultural and biological engineering faculty and staff. They will also have an opportunity to participate in the College of Engineering's Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program, which offers paid positions conducting hands-on research under the direction of Purdue faculty and graduate students. Additionally, students will be counseled on professional job skills and attempt to secure an internship through the Office of Professional Practice.

"It takes a village to raise a child but it takes an entire department to train a professional," Stwalley said. "It's all of us, from professors to professional staff to administrative assistants."

If the program is successful, Stwalley said, it would demonstrate that a strong desire to succeed and a robust support network are effective indicators of eventual collegiate and professional success in STEM programs.

"That would allow socially and economically disadvantaged individuals that currently fare poorly under the present admissions process to potentially be admitted into highly competitive professional programs with a similar chance of successful completion as their non-disadvantaged peers," Stwalley said.

The initial group of 10 students each are expected to start the program next fall.

Stwalley's co-investigators on the study are Darryl Dickerson, associate director of the Minority Engineering Program; Morgan Hynes, assistant professor of engineering education; Derek Peterson, associate with the International Institute for Children's Rights and Development; Carol Stwalley, data analyst for the Minority Engineering Program and Office of Institutional Research; Bevlee Watford, professor and associate dean of academic affairs in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech University; and Virginia Womack, Director of the Minority Engineering Program. 

Writer: Darrin Pack, 765-494-8415, 

Source: Robert Stwalley, 765-494-1791,

Agricultural Communications: (765) 494-8415;
Darrin Pack, 
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