By Zach Strohecker, Nov. 16, 2021

The National Science Foundation singled out Cal Poly Pomona’s STEM undergraduate development program for the $3 million Institutional Transformation Project Award first awarded at the start of the fall semester.

Cal Poly Pomona Intentional Venture Engaging STEM Students, or CPP INVESTS, is a program dedicated to helping STEM students transition through the critical stages of their undergraduate education. The program’s areas of concern include First Year Experience, undergraduate research, career readiness and minority representation.

According to co-principal investigator, Claudia Garcia-Des Lauriers, an associate professor in the Department of Geography and Anthropology, first-generation college students may find themselves at a disadvantage when it comes to navigating campus life. Students may feel uneasy interacting with faculty, signing up for classes and interviewing for positions.

“You have to learn them from somebody,” said Garcia-Des Lauriers. “And when you don’t have a parent who went through that or who doesn’t have a college degree themselves, that’s a lot harder to learn. You have to learn it on your own, and sometimes you don’t have sympathetic faculty.”

CPP INVESTS’ principal investigators, personnel and advisors celebrate their NSF award at Innovation Brew Works. (Courtesy of Micayla Anderson)

The INVESTS program progresses in stages starting with the First Year Experience courses designed to acclimate students to university challenges. Second-year students can look to Course Based Undergraduate Research Experiences, or CURES, for more extracurricular experience without committing more time and energy.

According to Winny Dong, co-principal investigator and faculty director for the Office of Undergraduate Research, CURES are research opportunities built into the coursework of certain classes. Working with the Council for Undergraduate Research and research institutes, CPP INVESTS offers students the chance to work with real world data and contribute research to a larger project outside the scope of the classroom. INVESTS approached professors about the project with positive feedback.

“They’ve been really excited about this because they realize that inquiry-based learning, not just rote memorization, is much more effective at teaching students, so they’re really looking to adapt this to their teaching,” said Dong. “And I think some of them feel like it would be more interesting for them also, as opposed to teaching the same things all the time. They can have these kinds of research topics that might be different from semester to semester.”

The NSF grant will be used right away to build a catalog of micro-internships for third and fourth-year students looking for experience to help them transition into the STEM workforce.

According to principal investigator Olukemi Sawyerr, associate vice president for academic innovation, micro-internships are shorter than regular internships and are incorporated into the curriculum much like undergraduate research. They are paid positions and students may opt into multiple per semester choosing from a catalog curated by INVESTS. This initiative was designed to alleviate the struggles of working-class students who may not have the time to search or complete an internship because of other commitments.

“We are trying to develop in-house internship opportunities in non-profit and public agencies,” said Sawyerr. “The goal is that we will find them and make them available, and you would go look through the catalog and choose which ones you want to do or, better yet, your professor will choose some for the class.”

The undergraduate research, workshops and micro-internships all come together under the digital credentialing system, also called alternative learning records. ALRs are a way for employers to differentiate students with unique learning experiences. According to Sawyerr, certifications are popular in the private sector, and employers in need of specific skills may look for students with certain ALRs to fill the role. CPP is at the forefront of digital credentialing and is hoping to see more widespread adoption in the future.

“There are not many universities that give students these kinds of really hands-on, practical opportunities,” said Sawyerr. “But the challenge is students don’t articulate them, so when they’re before an employer sometimes students have had this really incredible experience, and they talk about working at BJ’s.”

According to Sawyerr, part of the criteria for the NSF grant involved serving minority groups. With CPP being a Hispanic-serving institution, defined by the U.S. Department of Education as institutions with over 25% of students identifying as Latinx, the university was at the forefront of potential recipients.

INVESTS is training professors to create more inclusive teaching environments. According to Garcia-Des Lauriers, faculty are receiving training to approach STEM education in a more equitable manner with an emphasis on inclusive pedagogy.

“We do recruit students, but sometimes, we don’t retain them because they feel isolated, or they’re not being mentored appropriately,” said Garcia-Des Lauriers. “Faculty doesn’t take into account that student experience shapes their ability to learn or access STEM education.”

INVESTS currently operates in the colleges of engineering, science and agriculture. The $3 million, dispensed over five years, will help to expand the programs reach to the rest of STEM and eventually all departments.

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