Grants to target math, physics students

The math and physics departments will put more than half a million dollars into a scholarship program over the next five years in an effort to hold onto more undergraduates, who often drop out of those majors.

The grants for 30 students will come from the National Science Foundation to boost low retention rates among science, technology, engineering and math students at GW. The national rates for these STEM majors sit at just below 40 percent, according to a White House 2012 report, and nearly 80 percent of GW undergraduates who started off in physics switched to other programs in recent years.

“Students come to universities interested in certain STEM fields, and then they kind of fall by the wayside,” said Gerald Feldman, a physics professor who helped secure the grant. “And for reasons that are not so clear – lack of engagement, lack of mentoring and advising in the early days.”

The Joint Undergraduate Mathematics and Physics Scholarships, or JUMP Scholarships, represent a big part of professors’ efforts to combat that phenomenon.

The scholarships will award each of the 30 students up to $10,000 for the grant program that will begin in August. That is about the same number of students who matriculated to those departments in the fall.

Students with declared majors in the fields can apply for the funds after their freshman years. Recipients would then link up with one of five faculty mentors and join student cohorts to build camaraderie and make professional connections.

“This is the first time GW has gotten such a grant, so I think it will be very good for the University,” math department chair Yongwu Rong said. “It will allow us to attract better students and will provide a better support system for our students.”

GW has poured resources into building up its science and engineering research credentials and attracting better undergraduate and graduate students, in particular with its $275 million Science and Engineering Hall. The building, the most expensive in GW’s history, will house the physics department when it opens in 2015.

The White House report on science and math major retention cited the failure of introductory science classes to engage students as well as the lack of mentors as primary reasons for why students drift away from the fields.

“Most [students] get ‘lost’ somewhere along the way, and this is what we call the ‘leaky pipeline,’ ” GW professors wrote to the NSF in the grant proposal. “It is our belief that these students were not identified early enough and brought into the community of our respective departments, and this is why they disappear.”

The grant program will also feature talks from alumni and industry leaders, as well as advice from professors on how to navigate the job market.

Faculty mentorship was an attractive feature for freshman Nicole Giletto, who plans to major in applied mathematics and is applying for the grant. She said she has not found the math department faculty helpful, so she hopes to make use of the program’s faculty mentors to better identify job prospects.

“I think that would give you more of an idea of what is in the math field. It’s not particularly easy to think of tons of jobs,” she said. “It would open more doors and create more networks for the future.”

The departments would also try to attract non-majors who earned high grades in introductory math and physics classes.

Larry Medsker, a visiting physics professor who co-sponsored the grant, said he believes the scholarships would not only help keep academically driven students in the fields, but also lure more students.

“One of the things we like to think about is broader impact – even though there’s a certain number of students in the JUMP program, they are in classes with other people and they may have brothers and sisters in high school, so having these scholarships and the program will help with outreach,” he said.

GW’s decade-long strategic plan also points to helping tech-savvy undergraduates, calling for the creation of an Undergraduate Science and Engineering Academy, which would focus on attaining educational improvements in the fields.

The physics department has also tried to help steer a teaching revolution in recent years, as the University has expanded several classrooms so that physics and astronomy classes can combine lectures and lab sessions.

The moves have paid off so far, with math and science fields seeing higher enrollments in recent years, despite low retention rates. Undergraduate enrollments in those departments have surged 25 percent in the last four years, propelled by sharp growth in biological anthropology and statistics majors.

Cory Weinberg contributed to this report.

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