Traditionally, few of Clinton Junior College’s approximately 150 students pursue degrees or careers in science and math. But the private, predominantly African-American school in Rock Hill, South Carolina, is trying to change that with the help of a grant from NASA--the first competitive academic grant the college has received in its 111-year history. In 2003, NASA granted the institution a Curriculum Institute Partnership Award (CIPA) to stimulate students’ interest in science and math.
The CIPA grant is part of a program designed to help minority institutions develop science and math curricula while attracting and preparing underrepresented students for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). With only two science instructors, STEM teaching at Clinton is relegated to lower-level courses in math, biology, chemistry, and computer science. “We could say that the curriculum improvement grant that NASA has provided us with has given us a chance to take a close look at the course offerings we have here," principal investigator Elizabeth Anne Reid says, "and to upgrade them so that our students can be more competitive when [they] leave us." Clinton developed a program it calls the "3 Ms," for "monitoring, motivating, and mentoring." The program is open to the entire student body and all are encouraged to participate in its activities.
The first M, monitoring, means assessing student performance in their classes and their interest in the sciences. Naturally, Clinton’s facultyplays a major role in making this part of the program work. Because of the school’s small size, instructors can offer individual attention byensuring students do well in class, join student study groups, and travel to science meetings and facilities-- activities which, the program's creators believe, facilitate student success and graduation.
Because of this strong association between faculty and students,Reid has seen an increase in the number of students interested in pursuing science degrees and careers . Several current students, including second-year student Marveeta Phillips, plan to get their Ph.D. in science disciplines. Phillips, who at first was undecided about her career path, says, “I thought it was more reasonable and economical to attend a community college until I was sure about where I was headed.” She chose Clinton, she says, because of its small size. Now, Phillips is preparing for life after junior college. “I am preparing to enter a four-year institution,” she says, although she’s not sure which school she will attend.
Clinton is committed to improving its science and math curriculum and will hire additional faculty to teach the newly added zoology and ecology courses. A plan is also underway to bring in a professor from the University of South Carolina at Lancaster to teach upper-level math classes. Using course offerings at other schools as models, Clinton is also considering a development program to train faculty--bereft of Ph.D.s-- in the latest technologies. NASA officials provide content and offer suggestions to expand the scope of existing courses.
Reid defines mentoring as a student’s collective learning experiences within the professor/learner model, whether on- or off-campus. Students are encouraged to look to professors for advice and guidance, whether it is academic or professional in nature. Often, students find mentors at other educational institutions and local technology companies Clinton has informal relationships with such as North Central Family Medical Center and Boeing. Reid is quick to point out that these are not formal partnerships.
The NASA/CIPA program aids these off-campus mentoring relationships by establishing programs and courses at other institutions for Clinton science students. “We are trying to expose ourselves to places and activities that we wouldn’t go ordinarily,” Reid says, “so our students can see there are many opportunities available.” Winthrop University, a local 4-year institution, offers classes in scanning electron microscopy. The University of South Carolina at Lancaster provides Clinton students with access to its computer labs. But these informal relationships aren’t limited to institutions within the state--North Carolina State University, Benedict College, North Carolina Central University, and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University also provide cross-college programs. Since three of these four schools are historically black colleges, they “serve a student body with the same needs as ours,” Reid says. Exposure to 4-year institutions helps students prepare for the rigors of attending a 4-year college or university.
The perceived difficulties of science and math classes and the relatively low pay attributed with jobs in science and math are often cited by science policy analysts as reasons why people avoid these careers. That’s why motivation is a critical part of Clinton’s NASA/CIPA program. While similar to mentoring, programmatic motivation is not a passive process; instead, students are stirred to take action by mentors. Often, Reid says, the message is simple: “Take as much math and science as you can.”
Students are urged to major in a science or related discipline, to apply for internships, and to attend graduate school. Much of the work of motivating students, Reid notes, occurs beyond the confines of classrooms and labs. Therefore, a STEM Club has been established for students, with a special interest in math and science, to attend conferences and seminars. The STEM Club pays for their food and travel; the conferences they have attended thus far do not require registration fees. Members of the club also take field trips to Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, the Smithsonian Institution, and NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., during school breaks.
Last spring, Phillips, a member of the STEM Club, took a trip to Goddard and afterward was selected to attend a NASA/CIPA technology-exchange symposium in San Jose, California, where she presented a poster on how periodontal disease can affect heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and osteoporosis. Having gained confidence from the symposium’s networking exercises, she networked with students and science professionals and received advice from CIPA Project Manager, Clarence Brown. “I felt confident enough to approach these people and other individuals regardless of their status,” says Phillips. She also got advice about school and career opportunities from people like graduate student Manu Platt, IBM Corporate Director Diana Bing, and Director of the NASA Ames’s Center for Nanotechnology Meyya Meyyappan.
Publications like MiSciNet are also valuable resources, says Phillips. “MiSciNet has been crucial in motivating me with encouraging articles, especially those concerning minority women.” One article in particular, “My Community College Experience” by Raquel Garcia, helped her set her schedule and manage her time effectively.
Marveeta Phillips is living proof of the improvements the CIPA program has brought to Clinton. “One of the speakers at our meetings [Melissa Green] inspired me to enter… the sciences. I never thought that I would be interested in studying in the STEM field.” Phillips plans to teach high school when she's done with her education and create an after school science and technology community center.
Clinton Parks is a staff writer for MiSciNet.