NIU earns $1 million grant to support low-income STEM students

A $1 million National Science Foundation grant awarded to Northern Illinois University will provide scholarships and mentoring for high-achieving, low-income students pursuing STEM degrees.

Spearheaded by Ralph Wheeler, professor and chair of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, the NSF Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (S-STEM) program will benefit 46 students over a period of five years at NIU.

Timothy Hagen, an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Nicole LaDue, an assistant professor in the Department of Geology and Environmental Geosciences, worked with Wheeler on the project.

Students not only will receive financial aid, but the support they need to graduate as they’re paired with faculty and given research opportunities, Wheeler said.

“We’re thrilled,” Wheeler said of the grant award announced Aug. 30. “Our students really need this. We have students working full-time to go through school, and that has an impact on their grades. We have students who can’t return because of finances.”

The S-STEM program will target rising juniors at NIU and transfer students from the Illinois community college system to support graduation in biological sciences, chemistry and biochemistry, computer sciences, geosciences, mathematics or physics.

Each S-STEM scholar will receive up to $5,000 a year for up to three years, depending on financial need.

“This is a fantastic opportunity to provide much needed financial aid to promising students,” Hagen said. “Students will receive mentoring support and research experience that will give them an advantage in furthering their education and careers.”

Along with improving retention at NIU, the program is expected to build strong partnerships and recruitment opportunities between NIU and community colleges.

When the grant expires in five years, Wheeler intends to have built up enough partnerships with community colleges to apply for the next level of the NSF award program, which involves a $5 million grant award to be used over another five years.

“We’re going to hit the road and visit some community college partners in the very near future to publicize the program, and we’ll publicize it on campus as widely as possible,” Wheeler said.

The $1 million grant award start date is Jan. 15. The upcoming spring semester will involve planning, as well as publicizing. Expectations are to begin selecting students for the fall semester of 2019. The program likely will begin with three NIU students and three transfer students, with nine NIU and nine transfer students selected the following year.

“We may shift some of the year-two students into year one,” Wheeler said. “We’re going to ramp up, and then, over five years, we’re going to serve 46 total students.”

The details still are being sorted out, but, in general, students will be chosen based on a resume, a statement of interest and two recommendation letters. They must have a minimum GPA of 3.0, although Wheeler said, “In exceptional cases, we might consider relaxing that a little bit because everyone has a different story.”

The Financial Aid and Scholarship Office will determine students who qualify based on financial need, he said.

Along with earning scholarships, the students will become part of a cohort guided by faculty and other mentors. The idea is to support students’ self-efficacy and science identity, while building skills for technical and professional development, such as time management, task prioritization, scientific literacy, critical thinking, scientific writing and speaking, leadership and resume writing.

“The support is not just financial,” Wheeler said. “S-STEM scholars will be getting enhanced mentoring and research opportunities. These are some of the best high-impact practices for retaining students.

“We’re going to be meeting with the students regularly to have professional development opportunities and social gatherings, basically building community so the students can form a cohort and support each other. That’s the ideal. The students getting together and supporting one another is a key part of the program.”

The program will allow faculty to conduct interviews and gather data about student experiences to better understand the opportunities and hurdles they encounter, LaDue said.

“We have learned from research that a sense of belonging and connection to ones’ peers is important for students to persist in science fields,” she said. “An important component of this project is building knowledge about effective strategies to help students stay in science.”

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