Award Helps Economically Disadvantaged Students Succeed in the Sciences

September 7, 2018


Airika Laguerre '20, center, mentors Apsara Gurung '21 and Joseph Monteiro '21

Late last spring, biology major Airika Laguerre ’20 heard about Stonehill’s S-STEM award—and the fact that students could apply for renewable $7,500 scholarships along with the opportunity to do summer research. A National Science Foundation Program, S-STEM stands for Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.

“Originally, I wasn’t going to apply because I didn’t think I’d qualify,” she confesses. “Then one of my professors told me, ‘I think you’d be a great candidate for this,’ so I decided to go for it.”

Good thing she did. Within a few weeks, Laguerre—who grew up in nearby Randolph in a single-parent home—learned she had secured one of the highly competitive scholarships. “It was a big help because I’ve always worked to help cover the cost of tuition and textbooks,” she says.

Laguerre was even more excited when she learned that she would be paid to spend the summer doing research in the lab of Professor Heather Bleakley (biology). “Who ever heard of a freshman getting the chance to do research?” she asks. “There were four upperclassmen in the lab who were doing different research projects. I got to help them all to figure out what I might be interested in.”

This summer, Laguerre was back in Bleakley’s lab doing research of her own. She also managed the lab, teaching other new students the ropes.

Program Pluses

Laguerre is a perfect example of the promise of the NSF S-STEM program, which seeks to increase the success of underrepresented, academically talented students who are pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Recognizing that financial aid alone won’t get the job done, S-STEM also supports curricular and co-curricular activities that help these students persist in their academic and career pathways. Stonehill’s S-STEM program is open to rising sophomores as well as transfer students from either Bristol or Massasoit Community College.

Valued at just under $1 million, this is Stonehill’s second NSF S-STEM grant. The first was a $600,000 award in 2009. “Because we had a demonstrated track record, we were able to apply for more the second time around,” explains Professor Louis Liotta (chemistry), who, along with Rachel Hirst ’98 (biology), spearheaded the first effort.

On this second grant, they are joined by five additional faculty members: Professors Ruby Gu (physics), Nicole Cyr (biology), Kristin Burkholder (environmental science), and Pamela Lombardi (chemistry) as well as Heather Bleakley. The grant got underway last summer with awards to eight students: six from Stonehill and two transfer students from Massasoit Community College. This spring, an additional five students joined them as S-STEM scholars; the goal is to fund 30 students over the five-year life of the grant.

One critical piece of Stonehill’s S-STEM award is that it gives students a stipend to do one summer of hands-on lab research. “It builds their confidence,” explains Professor Rachel Hirst. (Left Hirst and Rachel Henshaw '19) “Studies show that early exposure to research is an indicator for success in science.”

Hirst, who also serves as the liaison between Stonehill and the community colleges, notes that research is particularly advantageous to the transfer students. “Students coming from community colleges face many challenges. The laboratory experience at Stonehill is much more intense. They also don't typically have the opportunity to do research as juniors because they haven't had time to work with any faculty.”

S-STEM Scholar Rachel Henshaw ’19 is another example of an academically talented student from an underrepresented background thriving in the program. After completing a two-year degree at Massasoit Community College, she then transferred to Stonehill last year and very much appreciates the ability to jump right into research.

“I worked last summer in the lab of Professor Magdalena Pederson,” Henshaw says. “We were looking at the relationship between a particular kind of mushroom and a type of bacteria that grows on its surface, trying to determine if the relationship between the two organisms was mutually beneficial. I loved it. It was so fun,” she continues. “I got to do things I’d never done before—working on protocols for gel purification, metagenomics, and DNA testing.”

As Henshaw’s experience illustrates, intense summer research helps students build critical laboratory skills, and that’s not all. “Doing research right away, students have the ability to get to know faculty and some of their peers—people who will be in their classes,” Hirst adds. “That way, they have a support system built in when they get here.”

Building Community

During the academic year, S-STEM scholars are also invited to monthly meetings where outside speakers—typically Stonehill science alumni—talk about their career paths. “Students discover that those paths are not always straight,” observes Professor Nicole Cyr, who coordinates the sessions with Professor Ruby Gu.

Henshaw says that she has found these monthly meetings to be great learning experiences. “It’s helpful to hear the speakers and their stories, some of which are quite similar to mine,” says Henshaw, who moved to the U.S. from Nigeria four years ago and lives in Brockton. “It’s been a great opportunity to build my network.”

“I learned there are so many options for people with biology degrees,” adds Laguerre, who notes that the meetings have elevated her ideas for the future. “I thought you had to have at least a 3.8 GPA to go on to a graduate program. I found out that’s not necessarily the case.”

In addition to the speakers, Cyr notes that the gatherings are also an opportunity to address topics like study skills and the growth mindset—the idea that learning and intelligence aren’t fixed, and that they can change over time. “We talk about how college is different from high school,” she explains. “We encourage students to rethink their approach to studying and learning.”

The message seems to be getting through. “I’m much more comfortable asking for help,” says Laguerre. “I used to think, ‘everyone understands this but me.’ Now I figure, if I have a question, I bet someone else does too. Now I think, I’m here to better myself. I’m just going to ask this.”

Henshaw says that she appreciates the community that the monthly meetings have built among the S-STEM scholars. “We’ve started getting together on our own to talk about classes and help each other,” she says. “I did well in organic chemistry, so I’ve been tutoring other students in that.” Henshaw, in fact, has become a chemistry Peer-Led Team Leader, student scholars who work closely with faculty to mentor other students.

Measuring Success

In addition to research and the monthly meetings—both of which were part of the first NSF grant—the second has brought another innovation: a science faculty learning community.

“We meet five times a semester to learn about promising practices in science pedagogy and discuss ways we could transform our classes,” says Liotta. “We invited all science faculty who teach first-year courses, so we have broad representation.”

“We’re benefiting from so many ideas,” says Hirst. “In the sciences, we know we lose a lot of underrepresented students after the first year. So we’ve talked about how we can provide the most inclusive environment to help all students—whether it’s how we write syllabi or approach office hours. What’s also great is that we spend the first 10 to 15 minutes discussing students of concern. A lot of times, we find that other faculty have also recommended a student to the Center for Writing & Academic Achievement.”

That knowledge helps faculty better coordinate support and has led to other developments, such as a scholarship fund for books and a textbook library.

“We also discovered that many first-year students struggle with the math they need for science, so we’re offering a special group for math tutoring,” adds Cyr.

In the end, however, Stonehill will need to demonstrate to the NSF that S-STEM investment has made a measurable difference. “A lot of assessment is going on,” says Hirst. “Professor Karen Anderson in education is serving as an external evaluator, doing surveys and looking at the data to find out what works.”

“We’ll certainly be looking to see if we improve the graduation rate of students in this program,” says Cyr. “Are they staying in science—and if not, why are they leaving? What are they doing after college?”

Expanding Horizons

In addition to the hard measures—the stark numbers—Hirst says that faculty are also interested in the soft measures. “Are our science courses changing, becoming more inclusive?” she asks. “Are we using active learning to provide a more effective learning environment? How are we advising students outside of the classroom?”

Early anecdotal evidence is decidedly positive. “This scholarship means everything to me,” says Henshaw. “I come from a low-income family, and I’m not the only one in college. With this scholarship, I’m able to reduce the weight of loans. I’m also able to get experience doing research and build my network. I feel like I’m a more confident, stronger student. After Stonehill, I’m interested in going to medical school.”

For her part, Laguerre had been thinking about a career in podiatry—her grandfather moved in with her mother and her when he lost a foot to diabetes—but her horizons may be expanding. “Research is also now a possibility. I took a genetics course with Professor Pederson this year and think genetic counseling could be really interesting,” she says. (Right: Apsara Gurung '21, Airika Laguerre ’20, Research Fellow Brian Haney ’20, Professor Heather Bleakely, and Joseph Monteiro '21)

Faculty like Cyr can testify first hand to the power of efforts like S-STEM. “I was the beneficiary of a program like this. I received a Women in Science grant as a graduate student,” she says. That award helped her continue her science education, which led her to research and to teaching.  She sees being involved with Stonehill’s S-STEM grant as a way to pass it on.

“This is a great program,” Cyr concludes. “Need-based scholarships help students stay in the sciences, and they have the opportunity to do research. The research builds their confidence—they can really see themselves as young scientists.” Through S-STEM, Stonehill is able to “support young scientists in their passion and help them persist.”