Georgia College awarded $650,000 national science grant for low income students

Georgia College awarded $650,000 national science grant for low income students

A highly competitive grant—the largest ever received by Georgia College from the National Science Foundation (NSF)—will help students who want to pursue chemistry or physics but lack the financial resources.

The NSF recently awarded Georgia College's Department of Chemistry, Physics and Astronomy a $650,000 S-STEM grant, covering a five-year period.  It provides eligible incoming students up to $8,000 per year, a total of $32,000 over four years, as part of a multi-pronged approach designed to attract and retain chemistry and physics majors.

More than 65 percent of funds will directly benefit students by offsetting their education costs. That’s what excites me.
– Dr. Chavonda Mills
“More than 65 percent of funds will directly benefit students by offsetting their education costs,” said Dr. Chavonda Mills, chair of chemistry, physics and astronomy.

“That’s what excites me,” she said. “We are able to make higher education accessible to academically talented and low-income students with demonstrated financial need, who want to pursue degrees in chemistry and physics.”

Remaining funds will provide enrichment activities to support the S-STEM Scholars and build on proven successful practices that increase retention and graduation rates.

The grant—titled “Increasing Graduation Rates of Undergraduate Chemistry and Physics Majors by Connecting College to Careers”—is a collaborative effort involving faculty in chemistry, physics and the department of education. To implement the grant, a cohort-based model will be used that includes activities like monthly “Lunch-N-Learn” events, early access to research, a mentorship program, internships and qualitative assessment.

Dr. Mills, right, in chemistry lab with a student.
Dr. Mills, right, in chemistry lab with a student.
Georgia College received the grant, in part, because of its proven successful model that offers a quality education experience for all students, especially those from historically marginalized groups. Underrepresented students perform at a high rate at Georgia College. They remain in college and graduate at higher rates. Undergraduate students at Georgia College have higher retention and graduation rates than their peers, as well—a success partly due to an elevated level of engagement the university offers all students.

Students engage in research early on, and GC Journeys prompts them to undergo five transformative experiences in college such as study abroad, service learning, community service or internships.

Not every institution does this or does it well. I think the difference is we do it very well. Having GC Journeys ingrained into who we are as a university, and not as an add on, distinguishes us from other universities. It’s embedded into the definition of Georgia College.”
– Dr. Mills

Mills finalized the NSF application during COVID lockdowns last spring, while also leading her department to online instruction. She was “elated” when the award was announced.

“A lot of time and effort went into submitting this grant,” she said. “But, knowing it will be life changing for these students, that time and effort was more than worthwhile.”

Mills will work closely with Admissions to advertise the S-STEM Scholarship and recruit students with financial need who have strong academic backgrounds. Scholarship recipients will be grouped into cohorts, like nursing and education majors. Using a cohort model is known to improve student retention and build comradery, removing feelings of isolation.

This fall, there’ll be one cohort of about nine students for chemistry and physics. The cohort will take part in a half-day enrichment program with a concluding ceremony, where scholars will be given embroidered lab coats. They’ll be encouraged to form study groups, volunteer for service learning activities and take part in monthly Lunch-N-Learn events. These activities will build a “sense of community” among scholars and “hopefully lead to increased retention,” Mills said.

The program encourages early access to research.
The program encourages early access to research.

S-STEM Scholars will also have opportunities to participate in undergraduate research early on and be assigned mentors.

Dr. Peter Rosado Flores
Dr. Peter Rosado Flores
Dr. Peter Rosado Flores, assistant professor of chemistry, and Dr. Hasitha Mahabaduge, assistant professor of physics, will design and teach research method courses that cover scientific communication skills. They’ll find and assign mentors for S-STEM Scholars and encourage students to take advantage of other support services on campus.

“One reason I’m excited about receiving this grant is it validates the work we have already done in several aspects of this program, including recruitment, undergraduate research and career placement which built a trust with NSF that we are well-prepared to manage the program,” Mahabaduge said.

“This sure will be a great opportunity, not only for our incoming students,” he said, “but also for the university to attract and retain academically talented students.”

Rosado Flores echoed those sentiments, saying “I’m excited about this endeavor from a recruitment and retention standpoint. We will be able to offer unique experiences, as well as support, to students who show financial need and recruit them. This will enhance the diversity of our chemistry and physics programs and the university in general.”

Dr. Hasitha Mahabaduge, right, in the physics lab with students.
Dr. Hasitha Mahabaduge, right, in the physics lab with students.
Summer internships are built into the program. S-STEM Scholars will have the opportunity to participate in internships together as a group after their sophomore or junior years. These will be with existing partnerships like the Center for Disease Control or Georgia Bureau of Investigation in Atlanta and others, as well as new opportunities that will be established through the Career Center to meet student interest. Part of the NSF grant can be used for internship housing allowance, which is a new feature for Georgia College students.

Throughout, the success of the S-STEM program will be evaluated by Dr. Rui Kang, associate professor of secondary education. Kang will use focus groups and pre- and post-surveys, as well as track student performance and meet with professors to access their perspective on the program’s effectiveness.  

We’re not by any means reinventing the wheel. We relied on the Georgia College infrastructure, building upon effective practices known to help increase retention and degree completion.”
– Dr. Mills
Every component is proven to work with students who have financial need, Mills said. NSF reviewers looked for proposals that were based on successful models.
 
“We’re not by any means reinventing the wheel,” Mills said. “We relied on the Georgia College infrastructure, building upon effective practices known to help increase retention and degree completion.”

“Ultimately, we’re looking to address the need for a high-quality STEM workforce by increasing the success of academically talented low-income students pursuing degrees in chemistry and physics,” she said. “At the core of this goal is creating an environment that is welcoming, supportive and inclusive of all students.”