Monday, December 21, 2009

Whitworth wins large grant to start scholarship program for underrepresented students in the sciences

Grant also will fund science tutoring labs, supplemental science instruction for lower-division students

As enrollment in the sciences continue to decline at schools nationwide, threatening America's long-term ability to remain competitive and secure, Whitworth University has won a $587,494 grant to support its ongoing growth in science majors. Funded by the National Science Foundation, Whitworth’s "NSF Scholars: Training Tomorrow's Scientists Today" program will help financially support a total of 48 underrepresented students majoring in the sciences over the next four years.

Whitworth is the only liberal arts university in the Northwest to receive this type of NSF funding this year. Other Northwest schools that received funding this year include Oregon State University, the University of Oregon and Idaho State University.

The National Science Board has identified a critical need for more students majoring in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Yet highly-capable minority and low-income students often have trouble remaining in the sciences, usually because they lack learning strategies to help them understand how to learn science, knowledge of how to access resources, understanding that they need to ask for help early on, and understanding the vast job opportunities in scientific fields.

Whitworth, which has bucked national trends by increasing the number of its sciences majors by 50 percent in recent years, is seeking to continue that growth by undertaking a major science initiative that includes constructing a new $32 million biology/chemistry building, which is expected to be completed by next fall. The new NSF Scholars program, which will focus on helping underrepresented students such as women, ethnic minorities and the disabled receive the help they need to pursue the sciences, also is part of the university's commitment to the sciences.

"There is a recognized need nationally to train more students in the sciences, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, which is home to a lot of high-tech businesses," says Finn Pond, professor of biology at Whitworth and principal investigator for the NSF Scholars project. "We're excited about the grant because it allows us to address that need, and because we'll be able to bring students to Whitworth who many not have been able to come here otherwise."

The goal of the NSF Scholars program is to increase the number of underrepresented students graduating with degrees in the sciences by providing financial support and integration into the academic and social systems of the university. It will build upon the Act Six Leadership and Scholarship Initiative started at the university in 2003 that has provided scholarships to urban minority and low-income students from Spokane and Tacoma, Wash. In its sixth year, Act Six has a 94 percent graduation rate, far higher than the national average of 53 percent for all students.

The NSF Scholars program will follow a cohort model similar to what is used for Act Six, and will provide $4,000 scholarships per student each year of the four-year NSF grant. The university will start with 12 students next year and will add 12 students each year thereafter. The NSF Scholar program will use student academic support and mentoring services created for the Act Six students, such as a bridge program, tutoring, and faculty and peer mentors. The cohorts also will take freshman seminar together. The NSF Scholars program will add to the Act Six model by providing peer-facilitated supplemental instruction in the freshman foundational science sequences and an interdisciplinary course designed to guide students toward learning their own specific strengths and values so that they can discover what kinds of scientific, technological, engineering, or mathematics-related vocational opportunities would fit them best.

In addition to Pond, co-investigators for the project include Assistant Professor of Chemistry Kerry Breno, Associate Professor of Physics Kamesh Sankaran, and Associate Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science Pete Tucker. Ginny Whitehouse, associate professor of communications, will be in charge of training peer instructors, tutors, and faculty mentors.

Located in Spokane, Wash., Whitworth is a private liberal arts university affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). The university, which has an enrollment of 2,700 students, offers 55 undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

Contacts:

Lynn Noland, director, sponsored programs office, Whitworth University, (509) 777-3701 or lnoland@whitworth.edu.

Emily Proffitt, public information officer, Whitworth University, (509) 777-4703 or eproffitt@whitworty.edu.