Faculty lead project to increase diversity in STEM

Three professors are tackling an initiative that will extend far beyond the Gettysburg College campus to make a positive impact on the talent pool of the traditionally hard-to-staff STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

According to data reported by the National Science Board, underrepresented minorities make up only about 10 percent of the country’s science and engineering professionals. This is true even though underrepresented minorities will account for more than 40 percent of the population by 2050, and the demand for STEM professionals continues to increase.

But a $605,609 S-STEM grant awarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) will help to change that, providing financial and academic support to 26 Gettysburg College students in the STEM fields, with a focus on supporting academically-talented, financially disadvantaged students.

NSFBiology Prof. Istvan Urcuyo is the principal investigator for the project. He and math Prof. Darren Glass, co-principal investigator, along with physics Prof. Jacquelynne Milingo, were responsible for the vision of the project, which includes recruiting and retaining underrepresented minorities and first generation students and helping them successfully enter careers in STEM after graduating.  

“Increasing diversity in the STEM workforce not only empowers those who are woefully underrepresented in these fields,” Prof. Milingo shared. “It injects a much-needed breadth of experience and perspectives into positions of power and influence. This ultimately benefits us all.” 

Underrepresented minorities make up a small fraction of STEM fields in every stage of career, from education and training to employment. People from lower socio-economic backgrounds and first-generation college students are also underrepresented.

“We have a very strong program in the sciences here at Gettysburg College, and these additional financial resources will give more first generation college students— and students from groups which are traditionally underrepresented in the sciences— access to the experiences we offer,” said Glass.

NSFThis coming school year, the team will focus on recruiting students by conducting outreach and leveraging both new and existing partnerships with community based organizations. The first cohort of scholarship recipients will step foot on campus in the fall of 2016.  These “STEM scholars,” as they will be called, will receive a four-year scholarship—part of which will be provided by NSF, the rest covered by the College. The second and third cohorts to enter Gettysburg College will have 11 and 5 students, respectively, for a total of 26 students by the fall of 2018.

In addition to receiving financial support, STEM scholars will also have the opportunity to work closely with faculty and build a support network that extends beyond the traditional classroom and semester structure. Each student will be assigned a faculty liaison who will serve as a personal contact in that student’s field of study, helping them feel welcome before classes even begin. All faculty participating in the program will complete training on how to successfully serve as mentors and teachers for underrepresented minority and first-generation college students.

“We don’t want to just attract the students and then have them fail out of the sciences or not be successful in the sciences,” Urcuyo said. “We want to attract the students, support them while they are here, provide them with the skills necessary to be successful in STEM, and give them that personal connection to faculty.”

STEM scholars will arrive to campus a week early for a day-and-a-half long workshop that will help them get to know their new community. Families will be invited to learn what they can expect from their student’s studies, strengthening the framework of support outside of the relationship between student and professor.

“We’re going to focus on the STEM aspect, telling them right-off-the-bat what it takes to be successful in the sciences,” said Urcuyo. “In order to do that, we’re going to have them attend a mock science lecture, run through a science lab and have exercises that are equivalent to what they’re going to experience when they start classes. This way, when they walk in on the first day they’re relaxed and not feeling like they’re walking into the unknown.”

During this summer workshop, students will also work with staff from The Office of Intercultural Advancement, which focuses on building a community on campus for multicultural and international students studying at Gettysburg College.

After completing the summer program, STEM scholars will begin the school year like any other student coming to campus for the first time; however, there will be additional support systems built in throughout the academic year. For example, every scholar will take the same first year seminar that will be tailored to building specific skills needed in the STEM fields. Professors will also host luncheons every other week to talk with STEM scholars about the challenges they’re facing.

“I deeply believe building a sense of belonging is the key to success for any student, but particularly these students because they need to see themselves as part of a community. Being part of a community is also knowing that it’s okay to rely on someone else when you need help— and sooner or later we all need help,” said Urcuyo.

By their second year in the program, students will leverage the support and mentorship they received to get involved in helping others—this will take the form of providing leadership and mentorship to the next cohort of STEM scholars.

Urcuyo says he’ll know the program is ultimately successful if underrepresented minorities and first generation students not only come to Gettysburg, but also receive diplomas and enter careers in a STEM field. 

“It’s exciting to me to bring 26 students to campus in a focused effort to help them be successful in the sciences and say, ‘I belong here— at Gettysburg,’” said Urcuyo.  “Then, to see them graduate within the field and have them find jobs in the sciences—that’s a contribution not just to our College, but also to our society.”


Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Contact: Carina Sitkus, senior assistant director of communications, 717.337.6803

Posted: Wed, 3 Jun 2015

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