St. Olaf College | News

Grant supports new research opportunities for TRiO students

Teaching assistant Pader Vue ’15 (center) works with incoming first-year students Chance Pryor (left) and Kaziah Josiah (right) on a lab project as part of the Summer Bridge program offered through St. Olaf Student Support Services.

With the help of a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, St. Olaf College’s TRiO Student Support Services and the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics launched two new programs this summer to give students with an interest in science the opportunity to strengthen their skills: a restructured Summer Bridge Program and a new Research Opportunities for Students in Science Program.

As part of the HHMI’s Science Education Initiative, the institute selected 47 colleges across the country in 2012 to receive grants with the goal of creating more engaging science classes, increasing the diversity of students pursuing science-related degrees, and providing more real-world research opportunities. The funds were invaluable to TRiO Student Support Services, which strives to ensure academic success for underrepresented or low-income, first-generation college students.

Building foundations
The Summer Bridge Program serves as a crucial first step in creating a strong foundation for future progress by immersing students in a five-week program of orientation and academics. This summer, the courses were revitalized to integrate mathematics and writing into the standard curriculum, in addition to conducting laboratory research — a necessity not always emphasized in beginner science classes.

“Nationally, studies show students at any level of scientific understanding excel with experience in research,” says Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Charles Umbanhowar Jr. “Research makes science make sense — it answers the question of why scientists do things the way they do. With that context, students become more successful, willing and able to go on to higher-level courses.”

The results are promising. “The changes were very well-received,” says Student Support Services Director Kathy Glampe ’92. “Giving students an opportunity to conduct their own research is an exciting concept, and the results have shown it to be very successful. It exposes them to new ideas and provides skills to carry them forward to the next step.”

Maintaining foundations
That’s where ROSS comes in. Where the Summer Bridge Program targets incoming first-year students, the ROSS Program strives to assist these same students the summer following their first year at St. Olaf.

“We observed that many students hit a wall and struggle with science classes far more than anticipated,” explains Umbanhowar, who coordinated the ROSS Program alongside Associate Dean for Natural Sciences and Mathematics Matt Richey. “ROSS is a chance for those students to participate in scientific research and maintain the foundation they’ve built over the school year with a refresher course during the summer.”

While Summer Bridge Program graduates are strongly encouraged to apply, the ROSS Program is open to all SSS-eligible students. Meeting five days a week, the students build skills to succeed in the sciences by reading graphs, interpreting data, and researching hypotheses based on their own interests in this summer’s topic centering on energy use in Regents Hall of Natural and Mathematical Sciences.

‘A triumph’
“My group focused on Regents Hall’s energy consumption, taking electrical, heating, and cooling costs into consideration,” says Seth Barkosky ’16, one of the nine students participating in ROSS this summer. Their efforts resulted in the discovery of an error in the building’s energy calculation software, which will now be improved with the help of the students’ data.

“I had a blast and learned a lot from Professors Umbanhowar and Richey.  They spent a lot of one-on-one time with us, and we did a lot of group discussions; the program gave me so much more than I anticipated,” says Barkosky.

Though only in its first year, all evidence points to the fact that the ROSS Program has given its participants the tools to succeed in the sciences, both intellectually and individually. “Above all, it builds these students’ confidence in their ability to succeed,” says Richey. “That’s a triumph.”