posted January 22, 2007

Program Adds Research Opportunities for Students

 Hope College is part of a group of colleges and universities working together to increase the number of Chicago-area students who pursue careers in science.

The City Colleges of Chicago are leading the consortium, which links several two-year colleges in the Chicago area with Hope and other schools whose research programs in the sciences actively involve undergraduate students. The goal is to more effectively inspire and prepare the two-year-college students to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, especially from groups traditionally underrepresented in these disciplines.

The program has received funding through a $2.7 million, five-year grant awarded to the City Colleges of Chicago by the National Science Foundation (NSF). Through this effort, students at the two-year schools are funded to engage in research activities during the academic year with their faculty mentors at their home institutions. These research activities are typically conducted in cooperation with ongoing research at the partner schools. During the summers, the two-year-college students and some of the faculty will participate in the research activities full-time at the partner schools.

The idea, according to Dr. Graham Peaslee, who is Hope's contact for the program and is also an associate professor of chemistry/environmental science at the college, is to provide the students with experiences and training that they otherwise would not be able to have through their two-year programs, and ideally to motivate them to continue their education.

The new initiative will reach a total of 80 students by the time the grant support ends in 2011, with four students conducting research each summer at each of the four partner institutions. If it is successful, though, Peaslee believes that it could ultimately reach far more.

"It's a model that other big cities can follow," he said. "We're going to be a trial project that the rest of the country is going to be looking at very carefully."

Peaslee noted that approximately 50 percent of the students currently pursuing higher education in the U.S. are attending two-year colleges, and that a large percentage of those students, moreover, are members of ethnic groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. For example, about 70 percent of the 50,000 students attending the City Colleges of Chicago are either Black or Hispanic; and, out of the 106,000 students served by all of the collaborating metro-Chicago two-year colleges, some 42 percent come from underrepresented groups.

Although the NSF funding took effect this fall, the program began on a pilot basis during the summer of 2006, with three students and Dr. Thomas Higgins of Harold Washington College, who is the principal investigator for the program, participating in research in the department of chemistry at Hope. Peaslee was pleased with the results.

"They hit the ground running and they hit the ground very well," he said. "They had the skills. They knew what research was about and why they should be doing it."

It happens, Peaslee said, that all three of the students who spent this past summer at Hope have science-related careers in mind. In the end, though, he feels that even a smaller percentage would represent a significant achievement.

"If even half of the students go on to a career in science, then that's a tremendous success," he said.

The collaborating two-year colleges include the seven campuses of the City Colleges of Chicago, with Harold Washington College as the lead institution; William Rainey Harper College; Oakton Community College; and the College of DuPage. In addition to Hope, the research partners include Chicago State University, Illinois State University and Youngstown State University.