University of South Carolina

STEPs to STEM to increase science/math graduates

Traipsing through a boggy, mosquito-filled swamp in August probably wouldn’t rate high on most people’s list for how to spend a summer in South Carolina.

But four Carolina undergraduates who were conducting field work with snakes, amphibians, and other wildlife didn’t want to be anywhere else. The students all started their academic careers at technical colleges and now are participants in a project aimed at increasing the number of baccalaureate graduates in STEM fields (science, technology, and mathematics).

The five-year program, called S.C. STEPs to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program) is administered by USC Columbia and recruits students from technical colleges and the University’s regional campuses.

“Every year about 1,000 students in South Carolina graduate with associates degrees in the sciences from Midlands Technical College and from our regional campuses, but fewer than 100 transfer to USC Columbia for a bachelor’s degree,” said Tim Mousseau, associate dean for research in the College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator of the $2 million training grant, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). “We’re hoping to increase by 10 percent every year the number of STEM graduates who transfer to Carolina.”

To accomplish that goal, S.C. STEPs to STEM offers support and incentives for students to pursue bachelor’s degrees. About 300 paid research internships will be offered through the program, which also provides special courses and scholarships to participants. Students will receive scholarships for up to $1,000 for each of their final two years of baccalaureate study, and many will participate in summer internships that offer up to $4,000 per summer.        

“These are challenging academic majors, and the cohort aspect of STEPs to STEM is helping the students to feel they belong and can succeed,” said Susan Hudson, program coordinator. “Many of them are older students, some married with families, so it involves a major commitment and sacrifice to continue toward a bachelor’s degree.”

Thirty-eight STEPs to STEM students were engaged in research internships this summer, and most are continuing their studies on the Columbia campus this fall. The students have formed a STEPs to STEM club and have begun to develop a sense of community among themselves.

Heather Mackey is one of the four students who had summer internships engaged in ecology field work. Now a biology senior, she began her studies at Midlands Technical College, then transferred to USC Columbia where she’s set to graduate this December.

“I’m seeing things and doing things I wouldn’t otherwise ever do -- wading in rivers and looking for freshwater mussels that most people don’t even know exist,” said Mackey, who hopes to earn an MAT at Carolina and become a high school biology teacher. “It’s like we’re poster children for what STEPs to STEM could mean for other students.”

Mackey’s fellow summer internship peers were equally enthusiastic about their experiences.

Joseph Colbert is president of the student STEM club and plans to graduate in biology in May 2010. He and David Lucas, another STEM participant, spent much of the summer tagging rattlesnakes, turtles, and other animals as part of a project in Mousseau’s lab.

“The field work motivates me to learn more in the classroom,” he said. “Working with venomous animals -- that’s just cool.”

Opportunities to conduct hands-on research are one of the best features the STEPs to STEM program has to encourage students to continue their studies, said Jayme Waldron, a research assistant professor in Mousseau’s lab.

“When I was an undergraduate, I had to beg to work with amphibians and reptiles,” Waldron said. “These are opportunities that I never had.”

Jason Stover spent his first two undergraduate years at USC Lancaster and has begun his final two years at USC Columbia. Stover worked in a lab this past summer with USC Lancaster chemistry and biology assistant professor Fernanda Burke on an obesity-related project studying peptides associated with hunger.

“The hands-on aspect of research had definitely excited me,” Stover said. “I have friends at other universities who wish they could be involved in research like I’m doing.”

Posted: 09/22/09 @ 12:00 AM | Updated: 11/09/09 @ 1:54 PM | Permalink