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NSF grant aids work to bolster number of women, minorities in science

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – The United States system of higher education isn’t producing enough scientists and engineers. Bethel College, recipient of recently awarded major grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), wants to help address that reality.

In an increasingly technological world, the United States finds itself lagging behind other industrialized nations in the number of science, technology and engineering majors it is turning out. Two populations that continue to be underrepresented in these fields are ethnic/racial minorities and women, making up only 6 percent and 25 percent, respectively, of the U.S. science and engineering workforce, according to the Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century at http://books.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11463&page=343.

Earlier this month, two Bethel science faculty were notified that they had successfully written a $257,600 NSF grant proposal, awarded in the category Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or S-STEM.

With the grant, Bethel plans to offer 42 scholarships from $3,000 to $10,000, each renewable for up to four years. S-STEM’s aim is to attract academically qualified students to study astronomy, biology, chemistry, computer science, environmental science, mathematics, neuroscience or physics, targeting students with limited financial means.

In addition, Bethel’s program will place special emphasis on attracting Hispanic, African-American and female students. Bethel science faculty hope the scholarships will increase the number of students graduating each year in STEM fields by 40-80 percent.

Jon Piper, chair of the biology department, and Dwight Krehbiel, chair of the psychology department, will coordinate and manage the scholarship program. They explain that several years ago the science and mathematics departments agreed on the need for scholarship funds to attract strong students.

“This grant is the result of many years of working together as science and mathematics departments to provide excellent academic programs for our students,” said Piper. “We are very excited about the opportunities this grant will provide students to pursue careers in science, mathematics and technical fields.”

The NSF S-STEM grant will build on Bethel’s 21st Century Science Scholarships and Krehbiel Science Scholarships, established in 2000 primarily through the help of alumni. Alumni will have an important role with this new program as well, said Krehbiel. A 15-member Alumni Advisory Council, which meets annually, will assist in various ways, including finding internship opportunities and bridges to STEM careers.

Selection of awardees will be based on GPA, ACT/SAT scores, teacher references and an interview. Once the recipients are selected, Bethel’s STEM program will encourage their persistence in the major by forming them into an active learning community. S-STEM scholars will gather for seminars, listen to visiting speakers, join ongoing departmental research, interact with mentors from science and technology fields and participate in internships.

As the grant proposal explains: “The goal is to provide a focused, unified, integrative experience for STEM scholarship students.” By these means, Bethel hopes to retain students and smooth their transitions to graduate programs or careers in the sciences.

Out of hundreds of grant proposals submitted, Bethel’s was one of only 95 selected to receive funding. “Bethel’s Science and Mathematics Scholarship program was seen as outstanding because of the strong commitments by its faculty, administrators, student support personnel and alumni,” said James Hamos, NSF program director of the Math and Science Partnership. Reviewers also noted the extensive experience Piper and Krehbiel have with past grants – since 1990, Bethel science programs have been awarded seven NSF grants.

“This grant award recognizes the capable leadership of our science faculty, affirms the strength of our science programs and provides opportunities for students to pursue an excellent education here at Bethel,” said President Barry C. Bartel. “We are pleased and honored by this award and intend to [use it to] strengthen our capacity to attract students from different racial-ethnic backgrounds.”

When the grant expires in 2013, Bethel College’s science and mathematics departments plan to maintain this scholarship program through a special STEM endowment created for this purpose.

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the highest ranked Kansas college in the national liberal arts category of U.S. News & World Report’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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