Cash for Undergrads in White Coats: Who's Funding Student Science Projects?

If you want to keep STEM undergraduate majors engaged in science, here's an idea: Let them do science.

That means research projects. Get them out of the classrooms and lecture halls and into the field and the laboratories, assisting STEM faculty with ongoing research or, better yet, conducting research activities of their own, leading to rewarding science and technology careers.

The Los Angeles Times reported recently that a growing number of colleges and universities are placing more focus on undergraduate research opportunities as a strategy for improving student retention and engagement in science, technology, engineering, and math. Nearly all campuses in the California State University system have offices of undergraduate research to encourage undergraduate projects, especially focusing on low-income and disadvantaged students majoring in STEM fields.

The National Science Foundation supports undergraduate research to the tune of $75 million per year and recently launched a new initiative to increase freshman and sophomore participation in research activities. NSF reported that a growing number of science faculty are bringing their own research into undergraduate classrooms and having students contribute to the work.

For colleges and universities that want to expand research opportunities for undergraduate students, funding support is out there. Best of all, schools don't have to be a major research universities to get in on the action. Many funded programs and initiatives have gone to smaller institutions, including private colleges. Check out this list of funders:

W.M. KECK FOUNDATION

Keck, based in Los Angeles, is one of the biggest supporters of undergraduate research opportunities. The funder awards grants of up to $250,000 through its undergraduate education program and especially encourages applications from private colleges and universities. For example, Keck recently awarded $150,000 to Reed College in Oregon for a program to bridge introductory undergraduate science courses with the skills students need to complete senior thesis research. The program strived to boost student skills in conducting literature reviews, working with data, and presenting research findings. Note, however, that Keck limits its funding to a 19-state region in the western and southwestern U.S., including Hawaii and Alaska.

ARNOLD AND MABEL BECKMAN FOUNDATION

This funder's emphasis is on individual scholars rather than institutions. Undergraduate students with innovative research ideas should check out the Beckman Scholars program, which makes grants to 10 research universities, which in turn select promising undergraduate researchers for annual awards of $19,300 each. The grants support research in chemistry, biochemistry, and the biological and medical sciences. The funder selects different colleges each year for the awards.

HOWARD HUGHES MEDICAL INSTITUTE

The emphasis on undergraduate research is music to the ears of HHMI, which has long advocated making STEM more engaging to undergraduate students. The funder has supported an array of programs to improve undergraduate STEM teaching and expand research opportunities for these students. HHMI has allied with NSF to support the Course-based Undergraduate Research Experiences (CURE) program to help undergraduate students become active contributors to scientific knowledge. Colleges around the country—and not just the big research giants—have received funds under this program. 

SHERMAN FAIRCHILD FOUNDATION

This low-profile funder (it doesn't even have a website) seems to be a newer entrant to the field of undergraduate research. However, the foundation recently awarded Connecticut College $250,000 to fund stipends for summer research projects by undergraduate STEM students. Fifteen students received $5,500 a year for a three-year period to cover supplies, travel to scientific conferences, and other research-related expenses.