UD program prepares underrepresented STEM students for grad school
Anthony Seraphin, assistant professor of mathematical sciences, teaches calculus to program participants.
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11:28 a.m., Aug. 11, 2009----Rigorous. Demanding. Intense. Awesome. These are typical comments from participants in the 2009 University of Delaware Graduate Preparatory Summer Residential Program, who finished their four-week summer stint on the UD campus feeling better prepared not only for graduate school but for life.

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Funded by the Educational Advancement Alliance (EAA), the pilot program included 34 participants, all recent graduates or rising juniors or seniors at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). EAA is a nonprofit organization that provides programs to supplement and enrich the educational environment and experiences of students in the School District of Philadelphia and beyond. The organization's focus areas are science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The summer program at UD was supported by a $210,000 grant from EAA and the National Nuclear Security Administration this year, with the funding renewable for up to nine additional years.

For many of the participants, association with EAA began earlier this year at the Fattah Education Conference in Philadelphia. Organized by EAA, this annual conference was the vision of U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-PA), who more than 20 years ago wanted to create an atmosphere where underrepresented undergraduate students could come together to be mentored and inspired. According to Michael Vaughan, senior assistant dean in UD's College of Engineering and program principal investigator, the residential program at UD is “the further realization of and partnership in this important work.”

“This is a true bridge program that provides a window into the graduate experience,” Vaughan said. “Our goal is to help participants transition to grad school by providing them with a variety of resources, including core courses in math and science, as well as modules in GRE test preparation, technical writing, team-building and career exploration.”

Students also participated in weekly STEM research team sessions, which culminated in their producing PowerPoint presentations and writing research proposals articulating what they had learned. In addition, the students kept journals and created essays documenting their experiences.

According to EAA administrator Sandra Harmon, the organization offers support for minorities at all levels from pre-school through the master's degree. One mechanism for encouraging students to choose STEM careers is EAA's HBCU STEM Fellowship Program, which provides fellowships and stipends to graduates of HBCUs who have gained admission into master's programs at schools in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

“One of the objectives of the summer program here is to better prepare students to take advantage of the EAA fellowships,” Michael Chajes, dean of the UD College of Engineering, said, “and we hope that some of them will choose to attend the University of Delaware if they have a positive experience here during the preparatory program.”

The approach seems to be effective in steering students in the right direction. “I wasn't even planning to apply to grad school,” said Ishmael Khalid, a senior biology major at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. “This program showed me new avenues that I could follow. It was tough but worth it.”

“The program helped me learn things about myself personally as well as intellectually and socially,” said Shayla Thomas, a junior biology major at Spellman College in Atlanta. “Everything I learned here will help me in graduate school as well as in making decisions in my life.”

Lamont Edwards, a senior psychology major at Virginia State University, especially appreciated the GRE prep portion of the program, which was organized by UD's McNair Scholars Program. “The summer program was demanding,” he said, “but it was very beneficial in terms of providing exposure to the graduate experience.”

Participating instructors saw real evidence of progress on the part of the students during the short but intense program. “By the end of the program, they were functioning at the level of first-year graduate students,” said Karl Booksh, professor in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry, who with graduate assistant Mike Malone taught the chemistry and biochemistry course modules. “They learned to synthesize information, formulate independent thoughts and opinions, and effectively defend their points of view.”

“It's great to be with students who are excited about class for the sake of learning, and not just for a grade,” he added.

The calculus module was taught by Anthony Seraphin, assistant professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences, while professors Patrick Gaffney and Charles Epifanio in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment hosted a special two-day session at the University's Lewes campus.

Vaughan emphasizes that even though the program is funded and organized through the College of Engineering, it is a multidisciplinary STEM-based effort, with involvement by three UD colleges -- Arts and Sciences; Earth, Ocean, and Environment; and Engineering -- as well as the McNair Program. More than 10 STEM departments on campus participated in the weekly seminar series to brief the participants on graduate opportunities within their respective disciplines.

“EAA is in the business of enhancing the lives of students of color,” said Deputy Provost Havidán Rodríguez, “and we're interested in diversifying the ranks of STEM students at the University of Delaware. This program benefits everyone involved by better preparing talented students for graduate programs and increasing the pool of qualified students choosing to major in STEM fields.”

“Programs like this go a long way toward helping us build partnerships and increase diversity,” UD Provost Tom Apple said. “There is a critical need to educate the next generation of scientists and engineers, and the EAA-UD Graduate Preparatory Program is helping to ensure that underrepresented students are well prepared for the rigors of the graduate experience in these fields.”

Article by Diane Kukich