Transfer Students Will Benefit from Grant

A $600,000 grant awarded to Mount Holyoke College by the National Science Foundation will help women students at community colleges to advance their science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) studies at the College.

STEM fields are an increasingly important growth area of the U.S. economy, and many efforts are being made across the country to recruit expertise into these fields.

The grant, titled “Improving Recruitment and Retention of Community College Transfer Students to STEM Majors at MHC,” will be used mainly to provide scholarships for transferring students, said Sarah Bacon, associate professor of biology. “By easing the financial burden on these students, we expect more of them will successfully complete science majors and enter graduate programs and careers in STEM fields,” she said.

Bacon is working with Becky Wai-Ling Packard, professor of psychology and education and co-director of the Weissman Center for Leadership and the Liberal Arts, and Darby Dyar, professor of astronomy, to develop the program, which will bring selected students to the campus in June for a pre-advising session with faculty and staff.

It’s uncommon to find women transferring from community colleges in STEM, said Packard. While women make up the majority of students earning associate degrees, only 5 percent complete associate degrees in STEM fields. Even fewer go on to four-year programs.

A student transferring to a four-year college faces a number of challenges, said Packard, who in 2007 was awarded an NSF grant to study working-class women using community college pathways to pursue four-year STEM degrees.

“Transfer students are often upper-level students taking upper-level classes, but they do not yet know or have access to institutional norms,” she said. “They might not have assumed prior knowledge in a prerequisite course or peer groups for studying, and they have a shorter time frame to establish relationships with professors when considering internships or graduate school.”

By providing scholarships through the grant, the College aims to assemble a cohort of women with common goals and bring these students into deeper engagement with each other, with upper-level STEM majors and faculty members at MHC, and with the STEM community beyond the College.

“Without careful attention to the nuances of transfer for STEM students,” said Packard, “we risk losing these important students from STEM fields, fields that really need more women and students from diverse racial-ethnic backgrounds.“

Nine MHC departments – astronomy, biochemistry, biology, chemistry, computer science, geology, math and statistics, neuroscience, and physics – are participating in the program, hoping to provide greater access to science and math for transferring students.

“Three cohorts of eight scholars will be recruited in admission staff visits to community colleges, and selected based on their capacity for excellence in STEM and ability to work collaboratively,” said Bacon. The first cohort will enter the College in the fall.

The students’ campus experience will be shaped by weekly meetings with science faculty, specially designed courses, intensive advising, information about academic expectations and prerequisites, and access to peer networks.

“We require all students to participate in pre-advising in June and in an intensive jumpstart program in August before school starts. They will also take a one-credit fall semester course, Science in the World, designed to get them excited about studying at Mount Holyoke,” said Bacon.

The students will be encouraged to apply to NSF-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs in their respective fields to gain research experiences in the summer following their junior year, and students in the second year of the program will be asked to return and participate in events with newer students, acting as peer mentors.

“Our program invests in science transfer students by assuming they bring talents and relevant prior experiences,” said Packard. “We can help ease the transition with science-specific advising and learning experiences that target academic and career development and leverage our strong peer mentoring program.”

MHC is a leader for women in the sciences, she said.

“It’s a natural match for us to invest in women from community colleges in STEM.”