José Madera has no problem embracing the “runway” metaphor.
Madera, an assistant dean in the College of Letters & Science’s Center for Academic Excellence (CAE), is talking about the College’s new STEM Runway program, a nascent network of research- and career-based opportunities designed to encourage first- and second-year students in traditionally underrepresented groups to pursue majors in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“I think of it as students starting one place and then going somewhere else,” Madera says. “It’s like being at one of those historic airport lounges with the exciting wall of flights to far-flung places. We’re trying to let the students decide which gate they want to go through. But we’re here to facilitate it.”
That facilitation means introducing some new programming, as well as making sure current and prospective students know about the support and programs already in place, to spark and nurture interest in STEM.
One example of new programming: Last year, three rising L&S sophomores spent their summer participating in on-campus and remote research opportunities in oncology, astronomy and psychology, supported by funding from Letters & Science alumni David Hammond (BA, History/Poli Sci, ’93) and Jennifer Hammond (BA, Journalism, ’93) through Dean Wilcots’ new Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Fund. Sherry Wong, Nasya Miller and Pamela Elubiaozor were paid to work 25–30 hours a week on summer research projects with faculty, exploring issues like ethics in research and how to properly use a research database.
“Sparking the interest of these talented students at the earliest possible moment is one of the best ways we can address diversity in STEM fields,” says Dean Eric Wilcots. “And that’s one of our top priorities.”
The summer research program (known officially as Letters & Science Summer of Excellence in Research, or LASER) builds on the framework established by the Undergraduate Research Scholars (URS) program, which has been pairing freshmen in L&S with faculty and research projects for more than two decades.
URS Director Hannah Bailey was instrumental in finding and arranging summer opportunities for the initial LASER scholars, each of whom had already participated in URS. The new summer opportunity, says Madera, took them to the next level.
“For us, LASER is the right model because students are basically putting into practice what they have already learned in the classroom and through the URS experience,” explains Madera. “It’s important for students to have these very early experiences where they can see themselves as being in charge of something they can create or discover and push their own limits.”
That has been the case for Wong, a computer sciences major from New York who was paired with Professor of Astronomy and Physics Ellen Zweibel. Wong used her coding skills and interest in astrophysics to create computerized simulations of galaxies that revealed what happens when magnetic fields collide and release bubbles of gas. Wong plans to present her findings at the American Astronomical Society in California later this year—a rare and exciting opportunity for an undergraduate.
“Succeeding in college is really dependent on that mentorship,” says Wong. “Mentorship helped me navigate my long-term academic plans. The advice you get from mentorship like this is something I rarely see in class.”
While Wong was studying the stars, Miller, an L&S student from Milwaukee, was embedded in an oncology lab, testing therapies on prostate cancer cells and learning the procedures and protocols of medical research.
“I was really challenged as a free thinker, to make my own decisions in different situations, and problem solving was very important,” says Miller, who’s found parallels between her lab experience and the classes she’s taking in chemistry and math. “I didn’t have those skills before LASER.”
Continuing to riff on the airport metaphor, Madera talks about the wheels that already exist in L&S to carry students down the STEM Runway. In addition to the URS program, there’s the Summer Collegiate Experience that prepares incoming freshmen from underrepresented groups for college life, including introducing them to careers in STEM-related fields. There’s SuccessWorks, the state-of-the-art career center in L&S that focuses on identifying interests, networking with alumni, and exploring various fields. There’s the McNair Scholars Program, which helps promising L&S seniors from underrepresented groups prepare for graduate school.
“Letters & Science is all about liberal arts education and exploring,” says Madera. “It’s about testing your limits and experiencing opportunities. And then you come back and say, ‘Oh, this is where I want to go.’
STEM Runway basically gets students connected and moving along the path of opportunities from the moment they set foot here on campus.”