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Sciences faculty win $565,000 NSF grant to develop scholarship program for low-income students

| By Nick Alexopulos
Mili Shah Loyola University Maryland
Mili Shah, Ph.D., associate professor of mathematics at Loyola, is the grant’s principal investigator.

An interdisciplinary group of sciences faculty at Loyola University Maryland has been awarded a $565,495 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a scholarship and mentoring program to recruit and graduate academically talented low-income students pursuing a degree in computer science, physics, mathematics, or statistics.

Through the new C-PaMS Scholars Program, a learning community at Loyola, six students from the Class of 2020—arriving in fall 2016—and six students from the following Class of 2021 will receive up to $10,000 annually during their four undergraduate years at Loyola. Recruiting efforts are already underway with a heavy focus locally on students from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Digital Harbor High School, and other public schools in Baltimore City, though any student who meets the program’s academic and financial aid requirements is eligible to apply. The goal is for half of the C-PaMS Scholars to be either women or from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups, with at least 25 percent from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups regardless of gender.

‘C-PaMS’ refers to computer science, physics, mathematics, and statistics. Nationally, just 16 percent of college students who earn an undergraduate degree in these fields are minorities, while only one quarter are women. At Loyola, those numbers are 7 percent and 38 percent.

“It’s incredibly important to have diversity in any discipline because it brings creative ideas and different perspectives that are invaluable to the field. This is what STEM is based on—you need to be thinking outside of the box,” said Mili Shah, Ph.D., associate professor of mathematics at Loyola and the grant’s principal investigator (PI).

Shah and her colleagues strategically selected the C-PaMS subset of STEM disciplines. STEM encompasses all science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines; the C-PaMS are more narrow but more naturally connected, offering students opportunities for interdisciplinary integration of experiential learning. A physics project, for example, deals with real-life applications that are explained by mathematical models and visualized by computer programs.

“Our approach puts everything together in a way that’s fun and exciting for the Scholars,” said Shah.

The C-PaMS Scholars learning community will be organized into two cohorts, one for each year, to build a strong sense of community as they move together through a sequence of classes and activities at Loyola. They will have personalized access to coursework, colloquia, field trips, summer research, and internships in all STEM fields. They will also have access to a variety of academic and professional mentors and advisors.

There are ambitious goals tied to the program’s comprehensive structure—goals in addition to increasing the number of students from underrepresented groups in C-PaMS disciplines. Shah and her colleagues hope 90 percent of C-PaMS Scholars choose to engage in an internship or research experience, which could be Loyola’s popular Hauber Summer Research Fellowship Program. They are striving not only for retention, but also for more than 80 percent of the C-PaMS Scholars to graduate with a degree in any STEM field. Students who follow this path will be better prepared to pursue extraordinarily competitive—and lucrative—jobs, many of them not far from Loyola. Maryland has the highest concentration of STEM jobs in the country, and Baltimore is among the top-10 U.S. cities for highest demand of STEM knowledge.

“There are so many career opportunities in the Baltimore/Washington region for people in STEM,” said Shah. “Yet for students in underrepresented groups, they often don’t see people who look like them succeed in STEM, so it doesn’t even occur to them that STEM is a possibility. We’re taking the lead to change that perception.”

Shah’s Loyola faculty colleagues who are developing and implementing the C-PaMS Scholars program are:

  • Dawn Lawrie, Ph.D., professor and chair of computer science (co-PI)
  • Mary Lowe, Ph.D., professor of physics (co-PI)
  • Lisa Oberbroeckling, Ph.D., associate professor of mathematics (co-PI)
  • Megan Olsen, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science
  • Christopher Morrell, Ph.D., professor of statistics
  • Roberta Sabin, Ph.D., professor emeritus of computer science
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