New Program to Match STEM Undergraduates, Faculty Mentors

LAWRENCE — A team of scientists from the University of Kansas has received a five-year, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to match undergraduates in STEM disciplines with faculty mentors as a means of increasing diversity in STEM graduate programs and careers while combatting career challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The program, Building Emerging STEM Scholars of Tomorrow (BESST), will recruit students in their third and fourth years of college, a critical juncture as students make decisions about their post-graduation futures. In addition to providing quality mentored research experiences, BESST will help students build the skills necessary to transition to graduate school or the workforce through monthly professional development workshops and the opportunity to meet with career coaches from the KU Career Center.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted undergraduate students in many ways, including limiting access to research opportunities and constraining their budding professional networks,” said Blair Schneider, Kansas Geological Survey science outreach manager, associate researcher, and principal investigator for the program. “The detrimental effects manifest in both the retention of majors and the retention of undergraduates transitioning into the workforce or graduate school, which has further exacerbated inequities that already existed in demographics of the STEM workforce.”

"Blair Schneider shows an undergraduate research assistant how to use ground-penetrating radar"
Blair Schneider shows undergraduate research assistant Madison Rice how to use ground-penetrating radar.

BESST, funded through an NSF Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCor) grant, will focus initially on earth and environmental sciences, with plans to broaden to additional STEM fields. It will recruit students primarily from two existing programs: the Emerging Scholars program that matches first- and second-year Pell-eligible undergraduates with mentors and the Military-Affiliated Student Community program, which includes a large population of students that have been historically underrepresented in STEM fields.

“The experience a student has in their first lab will often determine whether they choose to complete a STEM degree and continue on with additional education. If that experience is bad, we lose great potential — minds we know we need to solve the big problems facing society,” said Amy Burgin, co-PI, professor in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and the Environmental Studies Program, and senior scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey & Center for Ecological Research. “We want all students who want to be scientists to have a good experience — to engage in a welcoming community, to build a professional relationship with a trusted mentor, and to gain confidence and self-efficacy that they can be a scientist and belong in science.”

Though the COVID-19 pandemic affected all college students, those in STEM majors that require fieldwork for graduation faced cancellations of field activities or required courses, deferred or delayed graduation, and changes to research projects. Effects may have been worse for populations underrepresented in earth and environmental sciences, including women and students of color. BESST is meant to mitigate these challenges.

Faculty members from three academic programs (Environmental Studies, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Geology), three environmentally focused research centers (Kansas Geological Survey, Kansas Biological Survey & Center for Ecological Research, and Biodiversity Institute), and two key support offices (Center for Undergraduate Research and Office of Diversity in Science Training) have signed on in support of the program.

"The breadth of experience means that students will be able to find a mentor who aligns with their particular scientific interests. The ability to meet a student where they are and to support them to explore their own interests is a key factor in student persistence and retention,” said Alison Olcott, director of the Center for Undergraduate Research, associate professor of geology, and co-PI.

BESST will build on Emerging Scholars, an existing mentoring program operated out of the Center for Undergraduate Research that serves first- and second-year students in STEM programs. Scholars accepted into the BESST program will work with their mentor during the academic year and will be paid through the KU Work Study program, the same model used by the Emerging Scholars program.

“We hope to follow the successful footprints of the Emerging Scholars program, which has shown increased retention and higher graduation rates among their student groups as compared to the whole student population at KU,” Schneider said.

BESST will require professional development for mentors as well as students, a feature that sets it apart from many other mentoring programs.

“Mentor training is often not formally part of graduate education, so many faculty and scientists only have their own experiences to draw on when mentoring students,” said Erin Seybold, co-PI and KGS assistant scientist. “It is important to provide mentors tools, strategies, and knowledge about how to effectively mentor that doesn’t rely solely on personal experiences.”

The program’s mentor training will address the unique challenges associated with field-based mentoring, field safety, and responding to hostile or exclusionary behaviors.

“Sometimes field safety issues can involve the unpredictability of being outside: weather, animals, unstable ground. Sometimes field safety issues can be more nebulous and involve ensuring that the trip leader or senior scientist is welcoming everyone, no matter their background or cultural affiliation or gender or sexuality or financial situation,” Olcott said.

BESST mentor training will incorporate strategies to help mentors understand what “safety” means in terms of their students’ experiences and help prepare them to address issues that arise based on students’ identities. The training will be required for BESST mentors but open to faculty from other programs across campus and, in the future, will be more widely available through an open-access professional development curriculum.

“For STEM fields at KU, the mentor training will be an invaluable experience that we hope will build community and engagement so that faculty and staff can better train and prepare future scientists with support from their university,” Schneider said. “Beyond this, we hope to work with other universities and colleges so that they can develop a program of their own using our framework. How great would it be to see this type of program sprout at universities across the United States?”