The Frances Townes Reading Room of the Sanders Science Library.

A plan to develop STEM talent

For first-generation students and others, a $1 million NSF grant expands access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

By Chris Worthy

Daniela Mesa ’17 is working toward her Ph.D. at Purdue University. But that might not have come to pass without the support – financial, relational and academic – that she received at Furman.

Mesa is a first-generation college student who received a scholarship as part of a $600,000 National Science Foundation S-STEM (scholarships in science, technology, engineering and mathematics) award granted to Furman from 2012-18. The program makes a STEM degree accessible for academically strong students who are eligible to receive a federal Pell Grant.

“From a financial perspective, it made Furman accessible to me,” Mesa said.

Furman has been awarded a new $1 million S-STEM grant for 2020-25. Among other components, the award will provide renewable scholarships for 24 high-merit, high-need students seeking bachelor’s degrees in chemistry, biology, neuroscience or the geosciences.

These SOAR (Science Opportunities, Activities and Research) Scholars will receive up to $10,000 per year in scholarship support, renewable for four years. The first iteration of the program at Furman resulted in a 100% four-year graduation rate (90% at Furman), with 96% completing a degree in a STEM or an allied field.

The project is led by principal investigator John Wheeler, associate provost for integrative science and professor of chemistry, along with co-principal investigators Benjamin Haywood, assistant director of the Faculty Development Center, John Kaup, director of science education, and Michelle Horhota, associate dean of mentoring and advising and associate professor of psychology.

While much of the funding is for scholarships, Haywood said the other piece of the puzzle comes in helping Furman find better ways to help those students once they are on campus.

“So much of the research shows that access is certainly very important,” he says, “but you also have to provide those students with the toolkit they need and the resources they need to be successful in higher education environments.”

That begins with SAFE (Start an Amazing Furman Experience) Passage, an immersive experience during the summer prior to the start of the students’ first year.

Michael Turlington ’16

“The research opportunities that I received at Furman…have been instrumental in preparing me for graduate school and my future career as a chemistry professor.”

“They participate in mock classes, in some AI-based review and training in precalculus to prepare them for their calculus courses,” says Wheeler. “They have enhanced advising experiences.”

Michael Turlington ’16, who received a scholarship as part of the S-STEM program, is now a graduate student in chemistry at the University of North Carolina.

“The research opportunities that I received at Furman, thanks to the NSF S-STEM program, have been instrumental in preparing me for graduate school and my future career as a chemistry professor,” he says.

While the national focus of the program is on increasing socioeconomic diversity, at Furman the goal is that half of these scholars will self-identify as first generation or as members of an underrepresented minority group. The Faculty Development Center will help assess what works, which benefits Furman and its students but can also translate to classrooms across the country.

“These are groups of people whose perspectives and ideas haven’t always been included in the way we think about teaching STEM,” says Haywood.

Dr. Matt W. Wilson ’86 has made a planned gift of $4 million to Furman’s Institute for the Advancement of Community Health.

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