Mason Joins Initiative to Increase Number of Minority Students in ‘STEM’ Fields

Posted: August 11, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Bridge program welcome meeting
Incoming freshmen Marquise Sills, left, and Alexandre Ames get acquainted in a welcoming activity during Mason’s summer Bridge Program.

By Dave Andrews

Contrary to what many incoming freshman might think, the first year for a college student is much more than big parties, new friends and limitless freedom. The academic decisions they make at this stage can influence the rest of their collegiate career and beyond.

This is part of the reason why Mason became a member of a cooperative program among seven other colleges and universities in Virginia and North Carolina. The goal is to increase the number of minority students successfully pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and math – or “STEM” fields.

“It’s important that these students make positive associations within the university at an early stage,” says Bernard White, associate dean of undergraduate studies in the Volgenau School of Information Technology and Engineering, and the initiative’s principal investigator for Mason.

“By helping them to know what’s expected at the college level, and familiarizing them with the support services available, we can greatly increase their chances of academic success.”

Named the Virginia-North Carolina Alliance for Minority Participation (VA-NC AMP), the program received a five-year, $5 million grant from the National Science Foundation in 2007.

Bridge Program Eases the Transition

A group of 17 incoming Mason freshmen participated last year, and another group of 20 has been preparing for the upcoming year. For three weeks this summer, the new group participated in Mason’s Bridge Program that allowed them to live on campus and begin to experience university life. The program focused primarily on student empowerment and study strategies.

Bridge Program students working in a computer lab
From left, Dante Matthews, Ebonie Miller and Hernan Rojas participate in computer training exercises.

“Strengthening technical problem-solving skills, developing academic success strategies and instilling self-confidence while helping them feel comfortable as they enter college are very important steps,” White says.

“Many of them feel very nervous about the transition from high school to college, but most of them felt much more prepared after they experienced what the AMP program offers.”

Once the regular school year begins, the students will receive continual support with one-to-one tutoring, collaborative group sessions and other strategies specifically designed to address the students’ needs and keep them progressing toward a STEM degree.

The alliance is led by the University of Virginia, which coordinates communication among the participating institutions. In addition to Mason, the other participating schools in the commonwealth are Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Tech. The North Carolina schools are Bennett College, Elizabeth City State University, Johnson C. Smith University and St. Augustine’s College.

The alliance institutions formally gather every two months to provide progress reports, address issues and share best practices. On a more frequent basis, the alliance institutions participate in each other’s special events such as research and career fairs.

White says that each of the participating universities uses its own unique program format, addressing institution-specific student needs, but each is designed with the same goal – to double the number of STEM graduates from under-represented groups.

Motivating for Success

But White is even more ambitious with his goals.

“We’re confident that we can more than double the number of under-represented minorities graduating within the STEM fields, and in the process, inspire a larger group to go on to get a PhD,” White says.

“A lot of them are already thinking about it. I’ve encouraged them to address each other as ‘doctor’ because once they get it in their mind, they are more likely to work hard and persist in their effort toward that goal.”

At the end of the 2007-08 school year, most of the AMP students went on to internships or summer jobs related to their field of study. Three participated in Research Experience for Undergraduate programs under distinguished Mason faculty. Others took summer courses in technical areas such as calculus. At this stage, it’s still too early to determine the program’s effectiveness, but so far, student feedback has been unanimously positive.

“In addition to becoming acclimated to general university life, I’ve also gained the skills needed to manage my time, potential stress and academic responsibilities,” says Brittney Wooley, a program participant. “The valuable friendships I’ve formed with the other students will be beneficial as we transition into college.”

As the initiative moves forward, White says only time will tell how much progress they’ve made. But many intangibles remain certain, including a significant increase in student confidence and motivation to excel.

“I’ve visited Mason several times over the years, but never had I truly experienced what it’s like,” says program participant Roderick Tolbert. “Now, I feel more motivated and better prepared as I enter my first year of college.”

Students working on activity during Bridge Program
Roderick Tolbert, left, and William Foreman work together in the electronics lab.
Photos by Nicolas Tan

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