$1 million grant supports new program to ensure all students excel in the sciences
A national assessment done between 2013 and 2017 shows that more than half of low-income students who complete the first course in a biology or chemistry major do not earn that major by the time they graduate. The number of low-income students who complete these majors is 12 percentage points lower than their peers.
A new St. Olaf College program, supported by a $996,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), is working to address this gap by providing mentorship and research experiences for low-income, academically talented first-year students pursuing majors in biology or chemistry.
The Experience with Metacognition and Early Research to Generate Excellence (EMERGE) program combines scholarships with metacognitive training and early research experiences so scholars feel a strong, enduring attachment to the sciences.
“A lot of research nationally has shown that being involved in research early really makes a difference to students,” says Associate Professor of Biology Diane Angell, one of the faculty members leading the EMERGE program. “This program is about giving students that experience of working with other people in our science facilities and gaining hands-on skills.”
A lot of research nationally has shown that being involved in research early really makes a difference to students. This program is about giving students that experience of working with other people in our science facilities and gaining hands-on skills.Associate Professor of Biology Diane Angell
Angell developed the EMERGE program alongside Professor of Chemistry and Department Chair Doug Beussman and Director of Advising and Academic Support Kathy Glampe. The goal is to ensure that students who may not have had access to the same resources and preparatory courses prior to arriving on campus have the support and opportunities they need to persist in the sciences.
St. Olaf students are selected for the EMERGE program as they complete the initial course in the major. They join faculty-led research teams that work with specific science courses. Many alumni attribute their success to the sense of belonging and shared purpose they felt, so EMERGE includes peer mentoring, informal gatherings, field trips, and alumni networking. With their team, students get research experience early, which has been shown to increase engagement and persistence.
“It’s typically not until you get into upper-level courses that you have smaller classes and really connect with students. We know that’s important in your major; you want to feel like you belong and feel like you know some people and it’s not so mysterious. One of our goals was to put EMERGE students in research labs to give them that other experience of what it’s like to really be in a field and do research,” Angell says. “Discovery is what it’s all about. Creating belonging — that sense you’re making connections with upper-level students, faculty, and your research mentor — gives you a different perspective on the majors.”
The research component
Jose Gonzalez Ramirez ’24 first heard about EMERGE after his first semester of chemistry. He applied to the program because of its emphasis on undergraduate research experiences. “To be able to do research without prior knowledge and learn alongside a professor is a nice learning experience,” he says. “Hearing about it made me excited because to be able to get research experience as a first-year was hard to believe.”
Gonzalez Ramirez has now been working with Associate Professor of Chemistry Rodrigo Sanchez-Gonzalez for the past two semesters and is grateful for the opportunity to work alongside upper-level students and learn more about advanced topics that he has not yet encountered in the classroom.
“Being in EMERGE has grown my overall knowledge about chemistry and how to conduct certain experiments at a higher level of expertise,” he says. “Research experience and learning with upperclassmen is such a vital experience because not only am I able to learn more about what’s going on in the lab, but I’m also able to learn more about my major. Every time I leave the research lab, it’s empowering.”
Having a research mentor is a critical component of the program, and many of the EMERGE scholars have made genuine connections with professors within their major through working in their research labs. This was especially important for Toni Zheleva ’23 as a first-generation student who worked with Associate Professor of Chemistry Greg Muth.
“Professor Muth has been one of the biggest support systems that I have had on campus. He gives me personal advice as a human being and listens to my concerns. He listens to what I want to do and helps me navigate resources,” she says. “That is huge, especially because being first-generation, your head is everywhere. You have so many internalized fears, and you tend to put the world on your shoulders because you’re an example for future generations. That heavy burden can be hard on your mental health.”
Toni Zheleva ’23Professor Muth has been one of the biggest support systems that I have had on campus. He gives me personal advice as a human being and listens to my concerns. He listens to what I want to do and helps me navigate resources. That is huge, especially because being first-generation, your head is everywhere. You have so many internalized fears, and you tend to put the world on your shoulders because you’re an example for future generations. That heavy burden can be hard on your mental health.
Gonzalez Ramirez agrees, noting that Professor Sanchez-Gonzalez — or PSG, as students call him — has been a source of inspiration for him. “I look up to PSG because I’ve never seen a chemist or someone with a Ph.D. who is also Hispanic. It’s really nice to see that,” Gonzalez Ramirez says. “I get to learn about his research, but I also get to learn more about his journey in chemistry, struggles he faced, and what he’s still learning as well.”
EMERGE gives participants the toolset to complete biology or chemistry degrees and then join the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) workforce. As members of the EMERGE community, students will learn about STEM career options. They will also understand themselves as thinkers and gain confidence to pursue a STEM career, which is one of the primary goals of the program — to broaden and diversify the STEM workforce.
“This program allows students who are underrepresented in science to gain confidence in the lab, the classroom, outside of school, and beyond, which is especially important when there are stereotypes in the field of STEM,” Kathleen Kwon ’23 says, noting that imposter syndrome — doubting one’s accomplishments and abilities — can make many underrepresented students doubt themselves. “I usually get a lot of imposter syndrome, but this program has shown that I’m capable of contributing to the scientific community and being a part of this community.”
Kathleen Kwon ’23This program allows students who are underrepresented in science to gain confidence in the lab, the classroom, outside of school, and beyond, which is especially important when there are stereotypes in the field of STEM. I usually get a lot of imposter syndrome, but this program has shown that I’m capable of contributing to the scientific community and being a part of this community.
EMERGE scholars also focus on metacognition. Metacognition means “understanding of one’s own thought process,” so students learn more about their own mental habits and strengths and which ones help them advance academically. Students in the program will learn metacognitive techniques through workshops and regular reflective practices. Metacognition helps students build confidence, determination, problem-solving skills, and a researcher identity.
“People do a lot of research on metacognition in the classroom showing that it’s really important, but I think it’s a really key part of being a successful researcher, too, and it connects with vocation,” Angell says. “You’re doing research, but what’s that experience doing for you? What do you say to somebody who’s interviewing you about that research experience and what you learned, how it changed you? And so that’s where the vocation and the metacognition overlap.”
Creating a community of support
The EMERGE program has created a sense of community among the participating scholars, as many of them share similar experiences and have faced similar challenges. It is also an opportunity for students to inspire, motivate, and mentor one another in their STEM journeys.
“Having a program like EMERGE encourages you to not only engage in research, but it also establishes a community. We have this mentorship community with the EMERGE students where we can relate about our personal struggles that we have faced as underrepresented students,” Zheleva says. “Now I can give back by showing how I navigated through everything and help other students see that there is no correct one path to follow. The program has echoed that there are so many opportunities and doors through STEM. Despite whatever requirements there are in your intended major or STEM profession, there’s room for you to pursue passions.”
Having a program like EMERGE encourages you to not only engage in research, but it also establishes a community. We have this mentorship community with the EMERGE students where we can relate about our personal struggles that we have faced as underrepresented students.Toni Zheleva ’23
Zheleva encourages students to apply for the program. “Whether you’re a minority student, you identify as BIPOC, or you come from a low-income family, anybody within that realm that might need more guidance in navigating STEM should apply,” she says. “This program gives you an opportunity to explore.”
Kwon echoes this statement, noting that diversity is critical for the advancement of STEM. “It’s important for STEM to be diverse because STEM is such a broad field and reaches so many aspects of life,” she says. “Understanding and including people from all backgrounds helps overcome barriers in science because science is not just about why and how certain things happen, but how we can represent all groups of people. Diversity allows us to tackle the complexities of life through several different perspectives.”
The EMERGE program helped Gonzalez Ramirez imagine himself working in STEM post-graduation. “That’s what I love the most about the EMERGE program because it gives students from underrepresented backgrounds an opportunity to be on an equal playing field compared to other students and being able to get similar experiences that we weren’t able to get necessarily,” Gonzalez Ramirez says. “It empowers you to want to complete the major, especially if you’re first-gen or BIPOC, because you’re literally going through a dark maze and trying to find your way without having any prior knowledge or direction of where to go. EMERGE makes it possible to envision yourself in the future working in a STEM field.”
EMERGE builds on other St. Olaf programs that support low-income, academically talented students. In the fall of 2018, St. Olaf received a nearly $1 million NSF grant to support low-income STEM students as they gain advanced skills and expertise in data analysis. These initiatives also coordinate with the college’s highly regarded TRIO programs, including Student Support Services and theMcNair Scholars Program, as well as the St. Olaf Center for Advising and Academic Support (CAAS).