NSF awards $650,000 grant to UMass Dartmouth Associate Professor Yanlai Chen and colleagues to support and prepare students for STEM workforce

A National Science Foundation (NSF) grant that will prepare students for the nation’s high-quality STEM workforce was awarded to Associate Professor of Mathematics Yanlai Chen and colleagues from the Colleges of Arts and Sciences and Engineering. The $650,000 grant will provide awards averaging $5,000 to 80 promising low-income students while ensuring computer-aided problem solving in authentic settings is taught in core STEM courses.

The S-STEM scholars will be selected from the departments of biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering, mathematics, and physics.

The grant, Implementation of a Contextualized Computing Pedagogy in STEM Core Courses and its Impact on Undergraduate Student Academic Success, Retention, and Graduation, is also known as the ACCOMPLISH grant. In addition to financial assistance, the grant aims to provide multi-faceted and near-peer mentoring, social support, and a contextualized computing-centered education framework for eligible STEM students to prepare them to compete successfully in graduate school and careers in high-demand fields.

“The grant will provide financial scholarships directly to qualified students who have an unmet need following the regular aid provided by UMass Dartmouth,” said Chen. “This gap is currently close to $5,000; the grant can assist 80 students over five years.

“This assistance will allow students to reduce their reliance on paid work and thus focus more on their studies,” added Chen. “In addition to providing this extra layer of financial aid, the project features a comprehensive support system encompassing mentoring and career enrichment, and a state-of-the-art pedagogy integrating contextualized computing, data analysis, and authentic problem solving across the STEM disciplines. Lastly, these STEM scholars will be admitted in cohorts which will enhance their social belonging and aid retention.”

Grant based on success of previous NSF programs

The program is motivated by the success of a previous NSF-funded CSUMS (Computational Science Training for Undergraduates in the Mathematical Sciences) program led by Chancellor Professor of Mathematics Sigal Gottlieb from 2008-2013. CSUMS alumni have achieved successful career trajectories in employment and graduate school. One Co-Principal Investigator of the grant, Shakhnoza Kayumova, associate professor of STEM education and teacher development, currently holds a five-year CAREER grant aiming to create new and innovative methods to recognize and promote competent science performance and language identity development among English Language Learners. Lastly, both UMassD College of Arts & Sciences (CAS) and College of Engineering (COE) deans have managed S-STEM programs at their previous institutions.

The design of the ACCOMPLISH program is based on STEM research, attaining at least seven classic high-impact educational practices, in addition to a comprehensive support system encompassing mentoring, financial aid, and career enrichment.

“[The grant] provides direct financial support to our most needy students while providing them with a whole support system,” said Chen.

The ACCOMPLISH program aims to:

  • develop and adopt a problem-based computing and analysis module, in the particular context students can recognize, in at least one course each year for every involved STEM academic plan
  • include every S-STEM scholar for at least one semester in computation-themed research or computational consulting through a course in the Department of Mathematics currently led and taught by Associate Professor Alfa Heryudono
  • ensure that every scholar has a faculty mentor, a near-peer mentor, and participates in at least one career event per year
  • reduce the scholars’ reliance on paid work by at least half so they can focus on their studies

Computation will be taught in core STEM courses

One main theme of the program is to integrate contextualized computing and data analysis across the STEM disciplines.

No new courses are proposed. Instead, computing modules will be added to existing courses in the form of class projects. Problem-based computing pedagogy could involve calculus students studying the design of a more cost-effective soda can or engineering students creating and printing 3D objects.

Collaborative program with College of Arts & Sciences and the College of Engineering

The ACCOMPLISH grant represents a collaborative effort between the CAS and the COE. Co-Principal Investigators include CAS Dean Pauline Entin and Professors Sigal Gottlieb, Shakhnoza Kayumova, and Guarav Khanna. Senior staff involved in the grant are COE Dean Jean VanderGheynst and Professors Adnan El-Nasan, Scott Field, Robert Fisher, Maricris Mayes, Mehdi Raessi, and Mark Silby. They will help with recruitment and retention, serve as mentors, coordinate the development of the computing modules in each major, provide undergraduate research opportunities, and arrange career events.

Implementation will begin Fall 2021. To be eligible for ACCOMPLISH, applicants must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents, nationals, or refugees; have a high school core GPA above 3.0 or be enrolled in a STEM discipline with a cumulative GPA of at least 3.0; and demonstrate unmet financial need. Application materials will include a transcript (high school or college), one letter of support from a STEM teacher or professor, and an essay explaining the student’s interests and goals.

Recipients of the ACCOMPLISH grant can be first-year students, current students, students from the alternative admission program CollegeNow, or transfer students.

“I was extremely grateful to the NSF for recognizing our vision with this major investment and giving our team the opportunity to implement a great plan,” said Chen. “I was ecstatic for our STEM students who will greatly benefit financially from the scholarships and academically from the support system, including the special pedagogy our team will put in place.”