GGC receives $1.6 million grant for undergraduate research

Two students with professor looking over science materials

Dr. Richard Pennington, associate professor of chemistry at Georgia Gwinnett College, discusses a lab experiment with two students

Georgia Gwinnett College is being awarded $1.6 million by the National Science Foundation to continue and replicate a program that’s been shown to boost student interest in the sought-after STEM fields. One of the college’s largest grants to date, it is being funded as part of a National Science Foundation (NSF) initiative to improve undergraduate STEM education. The grant will be spread over four years.

“This important grant recognizes a game-changing curriculum project envisioned by Dr. Thomas Mundie, dean of GGC’s School of Science and Technology (SST),” said Dr. Stas Preczewski, president. “A multi-disciplinary team is making research part of the classroom experience for all science and technology majors from their freshmen through senior years. This is an innovative approach that sets GGC apart, even from most research universities.”

“The problem with the traditional faculty-mentored undergraduate research model is that students typically take it in their senior year and work one-on-one with their faculty-mentor. But not every student has the opportunity or confidence to do that,” said Dr. Judy Awong-Taylor, professor of biology and project leader. “We want all SST majors to have the research experience, and we want them to have it every year.”

Numerous studies show that students who conduct research as undergraduates have greater success with their studies. That’s relevant to the worldwide demand for STEM skills and data from the National Academy of Science showing 25 countries rank higher than the United States in the percentage of undergraduate degrees in science and engineering. 

A 2012 report revealed that less than 40 percent of the nation’s declared science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors actually receive STEM degrees. It also forecast that the United States would need to produce one million STEM graduates in the next decade to remain an economic competitor internationally.

With grant funding from the University System of Georgia Board of Regents, SST conducted a pilot project to develop and implement a 4-year Undergraduate Research and Creative Experiences (4YrURCE) model that focuses on course-embedded research in the STEM majors.

Surveys taken during the pilot project show improvement in the attitude, and even the grade point average (GPA), of participating STEM students. For example, as students moved from their freshmen to junior years, 30 percent more said they were likely to choose a STEM career as a result of their research experiences.

“Typically, retention rates tend to be lower in STEM because it is a more difficult field.” Awong-Taylor said the idea of course-embedded research, “really excites the students. And if you are excited, you tend to stay.” 

The NSF grant will allow GGC to continue offering these course-embedded undergraduate research experiences. A new component to this NSF grant is to collaborate with faculty from other colleges and universities to recreate the pilot on their campuses and raise the retention rates of their STEM majors, including those in underrepresented groups, such as women and minorities, Awong-Taylor said.

Another objective will be to reduce the dropout rate for GGC STEM students in the “gateway” courses that introduce them to their majors, Awong-Taylor said.

“We will be developing and implementing a Peer Supplemental Instructional (PSI) program to help students improve their grades and to increase retention rates in these gateway courses,” she said.

Patrick Smallwood, a 2014 GGC graduate in biology and a Ph.D. candidate in plant science at the University of Georgia, participated in the course-embedded research projects nearly every semester while at GGC and “loved it.” His early courses had some simple, but enjoyable projects, such as collecting and identifying insects from the area and then statistically measuring the levels of species diversity. Course-embedded research allows the students to use their critical thinking skills and as such is a step up from the traditional labs, in which students are simply given a set of instructions to follow, Smallwood said.

“Because of this, I would think more people would want to pursue STEM degrees,” said Smallwood.

GGC’s grant, “An Institutional Model for Increasing Student Engagement through Course-embedded Undergraduate Research Experiences,” includes faculty members from across GGC, including faculty from all disciplines within SST, faculty from the college’s School of Liberal Arts and staff of the Center for Teaching Excellence.

In addition to Awong-Taylor, the project team includes Dr. Clay Runck, assistant professor of biology; Dr. Tirza Leader, assistant professor of psychology; Dr. Allison D’Costa, associate professor of biology, and Dr. David P. Pursell, professor of chemistry.

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