UIC receives NSF grant for STEM fields

Kimberly Lawless, associate dean of research with the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Kimberly Lawless, associate dean of research with the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

UIC has received a two-year, $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to enhance inclusion of underrepresented groups in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

The new NSF program, called INCLUDES, for Inclusion across the Nation of Communities of Learners of Underrepresented Discoverers in Engineering and Science, awarded its first $14 million in grants to 37 pilot programs focused on STEM. UIC is the only recipient institution in Illinois.

Kimberly Lawless, associate dean for research in the College of Education, is the principal investigator on the grant. Over the past decade, she has focused on innovative ways to integrate science into interdisciplinary spaces in school curricula, including reading. She has received several grants to devise ways to introduce global, scientific topics into middle school social studies classrooms, using a problem-based approach.

Students of color and women are disproportionately impacted by the lack of a cross-disciplinary approach, Lawless says.

“I’m thrilled by this opportunity, because it creates a synergy between the mission of UIC and outreach to the community to develop new pathways in STEM fields for local community constituents,” Lawless says. “My work has shown that these types of contexts not only boost student performance, but also increase interest in participating in future STEM-based learning opportunities and heightens interest in future science careers.”

Lawless will focus on building alliances to enhance STEM teaching with a consortium of community-engaged partners, including university and kindergarten through 12th grade schools, community colleges, community organizations and cultural institutions, and businesses. Her goal is to “engage under-represented students in learning how and why STEM is relevant to their lives.”

“Capitalizing on interdisciplinary spaces in the curricula to demonstrate the relevance of science to students’ everyday lives is an extremely important avenue to changing the trajectory of STEM learning,” she said. She advocates an approach at all academic levels with particular attention given to the humanities and social sciences that “apply STEM to bear on the practical, social, economic and political issues of modern life.”

Her plans also call for the establishment of a community STEM advocacy center and a community ambassadors program to garner participation of higher-education partners. These efforts will be evaluated for their effectiveness in broadening STEM participation.

“The foresight and commitment of Kim Lawless to lead this cutting-edge grant with deep involvement and community-STEM advocacy for our neighboring communities are noteworthy,” said Alfred W. Tatum, dean of the UIC College of Education.

Other UIC educators involved in the project are Jeremiah Abiade, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering; Aixa Alfonso, associate professor in biological sciences; Ludwig Carlos Nitsche, associate dean for undergraduate affairs in the college of engineering and associate professor of chemical engineering; and Donald Wink, professor and director of undergraduate studies of chemistry and director of graduate studies for learning sciences.

The new INCLUDES program continues a longstanding effort by NSF “to broaden participation in STEM by reaching populations traditionally underserved in science and engineering,” said NSF director France A. Córdova.

“For more than six decades, NSF has funded the development of STEM talent, with the goals of furthering scientific discovery and ensuring the nation’s security, economy, and ability to innovate,” Córdova said.