NSF Awards Grant to Universities for Scholarships

In April, the National Science Foundation awarded $4.5 million in collaborative grants to Salish Kootenai College (Award # 2130222), University of Montana (Award # 2130286), and Montana Technological University (Award # 2130255). These awards will fund scholarships for high achieving, low-income students pursuing degrees in Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Researchers plan to use project data to better serve Native American and rural STEM students.

The overall goal of this project is to increase STEM degree completion of talented undergraduates with demonstrated financial need. The project aims to increase the first-year retention and graduation rates for each student cohort, improve transition after graduation to either a STEM career or further higher education, and advance knowledge about issues and factors impacting advancement along the academic pathway.

"At Salish Kootenai College, our students predominantly represent low socio-economic populations who are often required to simultaneously seek employment while attending classes to afford their education and support their families,” said Dr. Antony Berthelote, Vice President of Enrollment Management?and Student Affairs at Salish Kootenai College in Pablo. “Opportunities like this help students succeed without compromising?their potential.? The direct?financial support to those with?unmet need also enhances equity and socio-economic justice by reducing the debt burden often encumbered by our student population."

Over its six-year duration, this project will fund 260 scholarships of up to $10,000/year to 105 unique full-time STEM students who are pursuing associate and/or bachelor’s degrees in Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Mathematics and Statistics, Physical Sciences, Engineering, Computer and Information Sciences and Support, and/or Natural Resources and Conservation. There will be 4-year scholarships available to bachelor’s degree students and 2-year scholarships available for transfer students and associate’s degree students.

"Montana Tech has a long history of supporting student success and engaging students in hands on learning,” said Dr. Hilary Risser of the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Montana Tech. “The STARS grant will build on that history and allow Montana Tech to provide financial support and mentoring for students that may be historically underrepresented in STEM fields. The partnership with the University of Montana and Salish Kootenai College will create unique opportunities for Montana Tech students to engage with peers across the state of Montana."

Researchers report that students who have positive STEM-based identities are more likely to complete degrees and stay in STEM fields. However, personal and cultural identities, especially for marginalized students, sometimes clash with STEM identities. The STARS project will foster culturally-attuned, place-based knowledge in teaching, mentorship, and policy for STEM programs at tribal and non-tribal colleges and universities.

"Students are at the center of our work here at the University of Montana,” said Jennifer Harrington, Director of the Native American Natural Resource Program at the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation of the?University of Montana. “The underlying goal of this opportunity is to increase access and support for our student population who experience barriers to higher education and to give back to Montana communities by ‘growing our own’ STEM professionals."?

The STARS team will explore how students develop STEM identities and how those identities interact and are integrated into their personal and cultural identities. Dr. Frederick Peck, a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at the University of Montana explains, “Identity has emerged as a cutting-edge research topic, because identifying with a discipline turns out to be vital to students’ persistence and success. Because students are not ‘blank slates’ when they arrive at college, it is important to learn more about how STEM-related identities become integrated into students’ existing identities. Our research will make a major contribution to this effort and have a lasting impact for students in and beyond our institutions.”

The project will be part of the effort to create an inclusive, equitable environment for students. "This project will promote institutional change by providing professional development for faculty and staff on research-based and culturally appropriate teaching, advising and mentoring practices,” said Dr. Ke Wu, a Professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences and Associate Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Montana.

Dr. Berthelote wanted to emphasize “that these unique partnerships between our state’s academic institutions have the potential to provide relevant, local, un-paralleled opportunities for students from our underserved communities and we collectively hope that this collaboration will be a huge success for our Montana Students.”

Students can now apply for STARS scholarships at https://umt.edu/stars/default.php. The deadline for applications is November 20, with the first awards planned for January 2023.