Efforts Garner $600,000 NSF Grant, $1 Million in Scholarships

October 17, 2011 – From increased enrollments in STEM fields of study to high student retention rates and a successful mentoring program, Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, is doing its part to increase the STEM workforce—thanks to nearly $1.1 million in grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The NSF has awarded Penn State Behrend a $597,988 four-year S-STEM grant—the second in five years—to provide scholarship and mentoring opportunities for female students and students from underrepresented groups enrolled in STEM fields of study. S-STEM is the NSF's acronym for Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

In 2006, the NSF awarded the college a $496,788 S-STEM grant to begin the project "Scholarship opportunities for increasing STEM graduates at Penn State Behrend and in Northwestern Pennsylvania."

"We are increasing both our student enrollments and the number of graduates in science, technology, engineering and math fields at a critical time for the United States. It is an important component of our national competitiveness, and this grant allows us to continue targeting this much-needed population," said Dr. Ralph Ford, director of the School of Engineering at Penn State Behrend. "This also helps our regional manufacturers remain competitive as Penn State Behrend is able to supply the workforce with a talented pool of engineers and scientists."

"Financing a college education is becoming increasingly difficult in the current economic climate. The STEM scholarship program provides significant financial aid to deserving students and helps guide them toward degrees in highly desirable fields of study," said Dr. Michael Campbell, associate professor of biology. Ford and Campbell served as co-principal investigators for this second grant.

To date, Penn State Behrend has taken a holistic approach to ensure that these scholarship recipients have the academic and social support network they need to succeed. The college will continue to utilize academic mentoring as a key resource to support the NSF STEM scholars'—those students who receive scholarship funding from the S-STEM grants.

"A key component for first-year NSF STEM scholars are the group peer-to-peer mentoring sessions, which are led by upperclassman," Barbara Gunnison, special programs coordinator, said. "Later, students in sophomore through senior-year standing will participate in personal academic activities—individualized mentoring where students take initiative for their own futures. If a student hopes to attend graduate school, for example, she may research institutions that offer her program of choice."

During the first grant’s four-year period, Penn State Behrend increased enrollments in its STEM fields of study substantially. Notably, female enrollment in engineering increased 68 percent, from 66 female engineering students in 2005 to 111 in 2010.

The freshman-to-sophomore year retention rate was 96 percent for Penn State Behrend's NSF STEM scholars. Of those NSF STEM scholars who began their first year in a STEM field, 83 percent of these students were also enrolled in a STEM field in their junior year.

According to NSF guidelines, scholarship recipients must be enrolled full time in one of the specified degree programs, demonstrate academic ability and have financial need, among other criteria. Academically qualified students who meet the other criteria will be invited to apply for the scholarship.