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New Grant Establishes Pipeline from Community College to the UO to STEM Careers

EUGENE – When it comes to education and training for STEM careers after high school, not all students receive the support they need to succeed. A recently funded National Science Foundation grant hopes to remedy that for 64 low-income students in Oregon. 

The $4.3 million grant will provide both financial support and mentorship support to help low-income community college students pursue industrial research careers — which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects to be among the fastest growing employment sectors this decade, with even higher growth projections seen within the state of Oregon.

The grant funds the program known as the Oregon Pathways to Industrial Research Careers. Students in their final year at a partner community college — Lane, Umpqua and Central Oregon — will receive cross-institutional training, mentorship and scholarships for four years as they make progress toward their bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Oregon. The program started in July and will recruit its first scholars from community colleges this fall.“The program builds on our previous collaborations with the diverse student populations of community colleges and, particularly, the materials sciences and optics strengths of our undergraduate programs,” said Dean Livelybrooks, principal investigator of Oregon Pathways and former associate head of the Department of Physics.

Additionally, Livelybrooks said, Oregon Pathways will help meet a pressing need for scientists and engineers with expertise in renewable energy storage technologies, on-shore chip manufacturing, optical-computational applications and other specialties. It culminates with master’s degree training through the Phil and Penny Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact and its Knight Campus Graduate Internship Program. The accelerated master’s degree program includes a required nine-month paid internship, which provides graduates with strong work experience, paving the path for a long-term industrial career.

In addition to the Knight Campus and the College of Arts and Sciences (Department of Physics and Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry), Oregon Pathways involves the UO’s STEM CORE program and the College of Education (Education Studies Department).

It builds on three previous National Science Foundation-funded programs that successfully boosted the number of and diversity of community college students transferring to the UO and showed that UO physical sciences programs could successfully collaborate with community college partners, said Stacey York, co-principal investigator on the grant and director of the materials science tracks in the Knight Campus Graduate Internship Program.

 “As a first-generation college student who chose a degree path based on scholarships and had a successful industry career in STEM, I know the significant impact Oregon Pathways will have on students,” York said. “I cannot wait to empower them with the skills and connections that will launch their careers.”The Knight Campus Graduate Internship Program, with its combination of hands-on training in cutting-edge science and exceptional professional and leadership training, will play a key role in setting up students to be among the most competitive jobseekers on the market, York said. The program has a 98 percent graduation rate and students earned an average internship salary of $67,000 per year in 2021. Oregon Pathways aims to increase enrollment in the Knight Campus Graduate Internship Program by students from underrepresented groups, including from low-income backgrounds, by 20 percent after six years.

The 64 scholars in the Oregon Pathways program will collectively receive $2.88 million in scholarship funding, as well as mentorship and advocacy from Knight Campus Graduate Internship Program students and alumni. Each student will be eligible for up to $45,000 in scholarships, based on financial need, throughout the four-year program. Bryan Rebar, co-principal investigator and associate director of STEMCORE, expressed enthusiasm for the program’s potential impact on students.

“We’ve learned from our previous projects that there are many eligible community college students with high potential,” Rebar said. “Nearly all previous scholars have continued into high-paying STEM careers.”

Based in part on interviews and feedback from alumni, Rebar said, it’s clear that involving community college partners and providing more extensive mentorship and scholarship support serves to sharpen the focus of student training and education and leads directly to well-defined career opportunities. 

Oregon Pathways will help low socioeconomic students confront the many challenges they face, including limited resources, structural barriers, access to informal networks and so-called “transfer shock” during periods of transition to a new environment. Research shows that, for students without a specific goal to work toward, it can be difficult to maintain motivation to persist in school. Oregon Pathways addresses this by showing students both a career destination and the pathway to get there — that is, the connections between what they are doing in school and what they would like to achieve.

Oregon Pathways will also have an active research component led by Jenefer Husman, co-principal investigator on the grant and a professor in the Education Studies Department. Researchers will seek to understand how students’ perception of their future selves is impacted by faculty and peer mentorship, cohort-building activities and internship programs.

“The research component of the Oregon Pathways project will allow us to not only identify what components of the program are the ‘secret sauce’ that makes our program uniquely successful, but to understand why the supports we provide are successful,” Husman said.

Findings from the research will help inform strategies for future STEM retention initiatives and support other scholarship and mentorship programs across the nation. Upon completion of the six-year grant, the project will develop a model that enhances a cross-institutional culture of student mentorship which increases retention of low-income students in science while providing a trajectory for alumni to enter high-wage careers.

“This research will allow our program to impact students across the country, reducing the barriers to science and engineering careers,” Husman said.

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