LAS research awards reflect emphasis on improving STEM education for first-generation and Latinx students

Mary Ashley
Mary Ashley

By Jannie Kirby

With the backing of two new National Science Foundation (NSF) grants totaling $3.5 million, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (LAS) will bolster culturally relevant STEM research and provide financial and internship support to students. Mary Ashley, professor of biological sciences, has received a $2.5 million, five-year NSF grant to increase Latino student participation in biology and chemistry. Ashley is the principal investigator on the grant award and project entitled “Monarchs and Milkweeds.” Her co-principal investigators are Rosa Cabrera, director of the UIC Latino Cultural Center; Aixa Alfonso, associate professor of biological sciences; Maria Varelas, professor of science education; Daniel Morales-Doyle, assistant professor of science education; and Ginevra Clark, clinical assistant professor in chemistry.

Monarchs and Milkweeds will be supported by a competitive NSF award reserved for Hispanic-Serving Institutions. Monarch butterflies are an important component of the cultural heritage of Latinx communities and activities of the Latino Cultural Center. The complex relationship between monarchs and milkweeds spans many fields including environmental science, physiology, and chemistry. The grant will support the development of a science curriculum based on the monarch and milkweed system.

Ten LAS professors (nine in biology and one in chemistry) have already joined Monarchs and Milkweeds and plan to include elements of the project in their courses starting next year. The project will also support collaborations with instructors from three area high schools as well as Malcolm X and Oakton community colleges.

“We will extend this symbol of migration into a science curriculum that carries through from high school to upper-division science coursework at UIC,” Ashley said.

The research team hopes that the project will attract more Latinx students to science majors and support them on their pathway to degree attainment. The grant will also support a summer research experience where students will investigate monarch habitat and conservation in the Chicago area.

Donald Wink, professor of chemistry, has also received a $1 million, five-year NSF S-STEM grant that will offer both need-based scholarships and intensive internship experiences to first-year, transfer, and continuing LAS students. Co-principal investigators are Henrik Aratyn, associate dean of LAS and professor of physics; James W. Pellegrino, LAS distinguished professor of psychology and co-director of UIC’s Learning Sciences Research Institute; and Avia Rosenhouse-Dantsker, clinical assistant professor of chemistry.
“A core objective of the NSF S-STEM program is to support diversification of the STEM workforce by providing access to excellent learning opportunities,” says Wink. “That is why having S-STEM support for UIC students is so exciting. And the ways in which we are combining this opportunity for both new first-year students and transfer students adds to that.”

The S-STEM awards take effect in January 2020 and will provide students access to many new activities including a 3-day internship immersion workshop, a Student Success workshop series through UIC’s Academic Center for Excellence, and a Professional Presence course taught at UIC College of Business. Peer Success Coaches from Chemistry and Biochemistry programs will provide students with mentoring that can help them tackle both professional and personal challenges. The project is significant because of its focus on helping students build intra- and interpersonal competencies through these curricular and co-curricular activities.

Nearly 30% of LAS STEM majors finish with a degree in another discipline. LAS’ new NSF grants will enable faculty to offer the cultural connections and academic supports necessary to increase underrepresented student participation in STEM, and hopefully, serve as a segue into STEM-related careers.

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