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NSF Grant To Foster Community College Transfers

SOCORRO, N.M. September 10, 2012 – New Mexico is the lead institution for a new National Science Foundation grant that aims to bring more community college students into fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math, known as STEM fields.

The $1.25 million grant will be allocated over five years and spread over six colleges and universities in New Mexico. The consortium is led by New Mexico Tech, a state-supported science and engineering institution, and includes four community colleges in rural northern New Mexico, Northern New Mexico College, and the Regional Development Corporation, an economic development organization in Espanola.

The consortium has a cultural affinity because the participating colleges are small, enrolling less than 3,000 students each, and located in rural areas with high percentages of Hispanic, Native American, low-income, and first-generation college students. The program of work is based upon institutional self-study that has identified the major systemic and institutional obstacles to students completing STEM degrees.

Dr. Michael Pullin, chemistry professor at Tech, will be the principal investigator for the grant. Bruce Harrison, a professor in Earth and Environmental Sciences at New Mexico Tech, will be the co-PI. Pullin said that the two of them are pleased to be able to work with this consortium.

“There are a number of problems we are trying to solve,” he said. “No. 1 is that transfer students arrive with courses [on their transcripts] that don’t count toward the degree they want here. We are trying to develop degree programs that start at these schools and end at New Mexico Tech, so they have a clear path to follow and be efficient with their time and money.”

Transfer students typically have a higher graduation rate than other students, Pullin said. This program will encourage more students to pursue a bachelor’s in a STEM field and help make transfer students better prepared and even more successful, he said.

This grant will allow Tech – and the other schools – to address articulation problems. Articulation refers to agreements between state schools to standardize curricula so credits can transfer easily and already exists statewide. However, not all classes transfer in a way that allows students to make progress towards their desired degree.. For example, an introductory physics course that is algebra-based will not count as the required Physics 121 course at Tech, which requires calculus.

“If a transfer student is trying to get started on engineering courses, Tech’s introductory physics classes are often pre-requisites,” Pullin said. “It doesn’t leave them very well prepared if they have to take Physics over again. … and that’s just one example.”

The grant proposal also includes a plan to connect transfer students with a faculty mentor at their home institution and at Tech once they transfer. They will also be eligible for paid research opportunities during the program.

Prospective transfer students will also be offered campus visits and Tech faculty members will visit the community colleges to interact with instructors and students.

The four community colleges are UNM-Taos, UNM-Los Alamos, Luna Community College in Las Vegas and Santa Fe Community College.

Another key ingredient in the grant is economic development – as in job placement – in northern New Mexico. Pullin said the colleges and Tech will work with employers in the region – notably Los Alamos National Laboratory and its extended network of contractors – to develop internship opportunities and career placement services. The Regional Development Corporation will take the lead in that effort.

Project activities include:

1. Developing four- or five-year degree plans that start with two years at a community college and end at New Mexico Tech. In those programs, students would earn both an associate’s and a bachelor’s degree.

2. Improve advisement, mentoring, student development, and undergraduate research opportunities.

3. Create paid research opportunities in STEM fields and develop student-employer relationships.

4. Establish consistent, high-standard pre-engineering and science programs at the two-year colleges.

Over the five-year grant period, the project is projected to double the number of STEM associate’s degrees awarded at the two-year colleges and triple the number of transfers to New Mexico Tech and Northern New Mexico College. Overall the project plans to serve 610 students.

In the fall of 2012, Tech had 110 transfer students, an increase of 35 percent over the previous year (81). Typically, few transfer students come to New Mexico Tech from the two year institutions in the consortium.

“The general idea is to encourage them to get bachelor’s degrees, but also work on getting them connected with jobs back in northern New Mexico, so we’re not creating a ‘brain drain’,” Pullin said.

Tech and the other institutions will collaborate with Rural Development Corp., which is a non-profit based in Espanola. That group is developing a STEM jobs network for Northern New Mexico. Pullin said the grant is the first step in improving opportunities for transfer students.

“This approach could be used with any community college in the state eventually,” he said. “We’re really developing a model for how to design good programs for transfer students.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech