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$2 Million NSF STEP Grant Funds STEM Student Retention Efforts at UC Riverside

University of California, Riverside is receiving about $2 million to support efforts to retain students in science, technology, engineering, and math, especially underrepresented students. The funding is being provided through the National Science Foundation's STEM Talent Expansion Program (STEP).

The five-year grant, the tenth major grant awarded through STEP this fiscal year, will support a program out of UCR's College of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (CNAS) called Student Learning Communities and Research Engagement (SL-CARE). The program's aim is to support STEM students early on to help ease the transition to college, keep students from dropping out, and improve academic performance.

According to UCR, the funding will be used to expand and improve existing early intervention efforts.

For five years, UCR piloted two interventions with positive results: "first-year learning communities" and "first-year laboratory research experiences." According to UCR, the first-year learning communities program currently encompasses 32 learning communities for freshmen. "Participants get to spend time with faculty members, who discuss science, the scientific method, and the excitement of scientific discovery, and explore career opportunities," according to UCR. "The students also learn to develop their skills in time management, study habits, course planning and how to negotiate UCR policies and procedures from CNAS professional academic advisors."

With the new funding, the number of students served by those programs will double to 1,000 — about 80 percent of incoming CNAS freshmen.

UCR will also expand its program to include a third intervention called "second-year career exploration and mentoring." This will involve second-year students "exploring possible STEM careers, with active participation by peer, alumni, and professional STEM mentors," according to UCR.

"Our students are often from low-income backgrounds and are the first in their families to go to college," said Michael McKibben, the associate dean for student academic affairs in CNAS and the principal investigator of the grant, in a statement published on UCR's news portal. "Further, many belong to ethnic groups that are severely underrepresented in science and mathematics fields. These facts make it harder for our students to make the transition to college, especially in the critical first and second years."

The overarching goal of the grant is to more than double graduation rates of STEM majors from 24 percent to about 50 over the next five years.

"This combination of peer grouping, direct faculty mentoring, focused academic advising and active participation in discovery-based research is what makes the CNAS learning communities so successful," McKibben added. "This major grant will enable us to provide those opportunities to most of our incoming science freshmen."

UC Riverside serves about 21,000 students in Southern California, including more than 18,500 undergraduates, 60 percent of whom will be the first in their families to earn college degrees.

About the Author

David Nagel is the executive producer for 1105 Media's online K-12 and higher education publications and electronic newsletters. He can be reached at dnagel@1105media.com. He can now be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/THEJournalDave (K-12) or http://twitter.com/CampusTechDave (higher education). You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at http://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=10390192.

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