Across the landscape of higher education, interest in STEM fields is on the rise. And Emory stands ready to fuel the focus.
A few days before orientation began last summer, 60 first-year Emory College students met with professors, administrators, and mentors for an in-depth introduction to the science and technology fields they intend to pursue.
Over four days, questions were asked and answered and relationships forged — all toward the goal of gaining a clearer picture of the academic pathway that lay ahead for each student. In addition, students were able to explore a wide spectrum of career possibilities that lay down the road.
Emory’s STEM Pathways preorientation program is designed to give guidance and support to students who are the first generation in their families to attend college, or who are in identity groups that are underrepresented in technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers.
The program, which began its inaugural year, replaces and builds upon the legacy of two previous precollege programs that boost both students and Emory.
The intent is to help young scholars gain a deeper understanding of the wide array of opportunities available within Emory College’s liberal arts curriculum, as well as chart an early roadmap for their academic careers, with sessions on study skills and developing a five-year plan.
For students like K’Mani Blyden, from Acworth, Georgia, the program provided a chance to explore his options more fully. With the goal of becoming a surgeon, he says that STEM Pathways has offered him "a more relaxed way to meet and talk among ourselves, meet mentors and professors, and really get an idea of what’s ahead.”
Nationally, studies show that high school students are increasingly eager to pursue STEM majors and careers. Between 2004 and 2013, interest in STEM programs jumped 21 percent among high schoolers, according to a report by My College Options and STEMconnector.
Emory, meanwhile, continues to grow its diverse community of student scholars, many of whom will fill the one million new STEM jobs that the US Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts by 2022.
“We know that going into these areas of study it will be very rigorous, so we want to break down as many barriers as possible, so all of our students are successful,” says Julie Loppacher, an associate director in the Office for Undergraduate Education who helped develop the program curriculum.
Mentoring and support
STEM Pathways is a continuation of the Hughes Undergraduates Excelling in Science (HUES) and Getting a Leg Up at Emory (GLUE) programs that closed with the end of their grant funding last year.
Emory College is funding the new program, which organizers expect to grow in the coming years as it builds on its own, and previous program, successes. Students in the program have year-round access to other participants, mentors, and professors.
“Most of our STEM students say they want to become doctors, but they have no idea of all the professions available to them, all the research possibilities that exist,” says Andrea Neal, an assistant director in Emory College and director of the summer EPIC program at the School of Medicine.
“With Emory College very committed to this, our students are going to get a glimpse of all that is open to them prior to them even taking an Emory course,” Neal says.
Tracy McGill, a senior lecturer in chemistry, says she chose to kick off the fall 2016 semester with the STEM Pathways students because they arrive with such enthusiasm about Emory and are eager to discover what their path in the sciences will be.
“Meeting the faculty that will be teaching their classes is such an integral component to the program for us and for them,” she says. “We get a jump-start on building our learning community and can really build on the passion of this engaged group of students.”
The mentors, older students who are also underrepresented minorities studying STEM fields, play an important role in highlighting the array of course work and majors available.
"STEM Pathways solidified some of what I already knew and gave me specifics on the broad ideas I had about studying a science. It’s opened new doors I didn’t know existed," says Brianka Rainford, a first-year student from Durham, North Carolina.
Consider the experience of Samantha Tall, a junior majoring in psychology and linguistics. She learned from the GLUE program that studying the humanities, while also taking the tough science courses, could set her apart when she applies for medical school.
“I’m the one telling them they can pursue their passions and still be in medicine,” Tall says. “I share that I shadowed medical research, and being in the lab is how I figured out I want to do more work with patients. Without resources like this program, you don’t always hear that.”
Cora MacBeth, the assistant dean for the sciences at Emory College, is encouraged by such conversations, since they show first-year students the breadth of available careers and how a liberal arts education can get them there. The experience also helps create a continuum of students who will shape the program.
Next year, that means it will be Rainford giving the advice. This year, she was too busy absorbing the idea that her plans of being a cardiothoracic surgeon might be, amazingly, limited.
Studying human health, she has learned, could mean working to prevent diseases instead of treating them.
Preparing STEM faculty
Emory has also expanded efforts to better prepare STEM faculty by joining the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL).
Established in 2003 with support from the National Science Foundation to improve teaching skills and increase the diversity of future university faculty in STEM fields, members of the CIRTL network commit to develop local learning communities that promote proven teaching and mentoring techniques for STEM graduate students.
CIRTL stresses the use of successful, evidence-based strategies proven to promote active learning and to help STEM students succeed and complete their degrees. As a new CIRTL member, Emory will work with faculty, leadership, and students to develop its own programs built on the CIRTL core ideas: teaching as research, learning communities, and learning through diversity.
Launched in fall 2016, the new local learning community offers its own robust schedule of courses, programs, events, internships, and resources. It also will collaborate with existing centers and programs at Emory, as well as cross-network projects with CIRTL partners.
As a champion for participation in CIRTL, Emory President Claire E. Sterk says joining this one-of-a-kind national learning community provides each member institution great value.
"Emory sought to join the CIRTL Network to enhance our commitment to graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and faculty to develop and implement advanced teaching practices that will engage and retain a diverse student body in the STEM fields," says President Sterk.
“In addition to — and in partnership with — the work and training of Emory’s own Center for Faculty Development and Excellence, participation in the CIRTL Network will expand Emory’s ability to serve and mentor future faculty currently training at Emory, as well as our own early-career faculty," she notes.
According to Laney Graduate School Dean Lisa Tedesco, Emory is "well-positioned to leverage the CIRTL core ideas into existing Laney Graduate School and campuswide programs, several of which already engage a large number of graduate students, faculty, and postdoctoral fellows in STEM disciplines."
The Laney Graduate School also supports STEM scholars through hosting the annual STEM Research and Career Symposium, which welcomes students from underrepresented groups to campus early in the fall semester.
Participants include outstanding undergraduates intending to pursue a PhD or MD/PhD, as well as graduate students seeking postdoctoral opportunities. In addition to networking and recruitment opportunities, students also hear from keynote speakers and present their research in a wide variety of scientific categories.