In the past, we have reported on the work of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to keep students who choose to major in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics on track so that they successfully complete their degrees and join the ranks of scientists and engineers that a 21st century economy requires. However, with many students switching from STEM to other disciplines while in college, the task of keeping these students on track is too large for any one funder — even one named for one of America's greatest industrialists — to handle alone. Fortunately, the battle is joined, with foundations large and small stepping up to support STEM retention programs.
The Sherman Fairchild Foundation is among the entrants. This Maryland-based foundation is low-key in nature (it doesn't even have a website!) but provides millions in grants for higher education projects. One of those projects is a grant for nearly $250,000 to Connecticut College to fund stipends for summer research projects by undergraduate students in the sciences.
Opening up opportunities for undergraduate students to work with science faculty in research projects is one important strategy for improving student retention in STEM. Such projects move away from lectures and memorization of scientific concepts and theories and toward the kind of applied, hands-on activities that bring science to life for generations raised on video games and interactive technology.
The Fairchild Foundation grants will support stipends for 15 students a year for a three-year period beginning in 2014, with each student receiving $5,500 to cover supplies, travel to scientific conferences to present research findings, and other expenses.
Student research activities are an effective practice for retaining students in the STEM disciplines, but are nothing new at Connecticut College, which makes student-faculty research an integral part of its science programs. A dean at the college called student-faculty research a strong interaction in which students connect their classroom learning to real-world problem solving. In the last seven years, more than 100 students at the college have co-authored research papers with science faculty members.
Fairchild may prefer to fly beneath the radar, but colleges and universities should get on this funder's radar, especially if they have ideas for retaining STEM majors.