Post-Secondary STEM Education

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The UAPB STEM Scholars Academy helps us understand how to:

+ Prepare college undergraduates for rewarding careers in STEM education 

+ Provide support to female students and students of color to increase retention and graduation rates

+ Build an education-to-career pipeline that ultimately drives Arkansas’s economy in the 21st century

In May 2005, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff awarded BS degrees to 76 STEM graduates. Between the December 2013 and May 2014 commencements, the university awarded 124 STEM degrees, an increase of 63 percent. Recent numbers also show a first- to second-year retention rate of 93 percent of students in STEM. 

Dr. Mary E. Benjamin, Vice Chancellor of Research, Innovation, and Economic Development at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, was on a mission to transition the historically black college into one of the region’s leading STEM institutions. Based on the results, that’s exactly what she’s done.

Dr. Benjamin and her colleagues had long sought to tap into STEM’s power as an economic driver. They also wanted to increase the number of women and students of color pursuing STEM majors, with a special focus on the Arkansas Delta. In 2003, UAPB secured federal funding to create the STEM Scholars Academy. 

After steady increases in student retention since the STEM Scholars Academy began, the program has kept students in college. For example, between 2008 to 2013, retention remained above 90 percent. And this retention rate has remained especially high among female students—in 2013, 95 percent of female STEM Scholars continued on to their second year. The Academy has also made significant gains in graduating more Arkansans–in 2013, 70 percent of Academy students graduated from Arkansas high schools. 

The STEM Scholars Academy provides several enrichment programs. Funding is provided by the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority as well as other federal agencies like the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education. The Academy’s mission to expand the pool of well-prepared scholars from underrepresented groups in STEM majors and careers, part of UAPB’s long-standing legacy of serving students in the Arkansas Delta, maintains a broad focus on diversity in the areas of research, teaching, and industry. 

STEM Scholars attend the Summer Academy at UAPB during summer orientation to help students get acclimated. This orientation helps bond students with staff as well as peers. Establishing this foundation early on helps students ensure they participate in other core program components like the Guest Lecture Series, hands-on research, mentoring, study groups, and internships.

The success of the STEM Scholars Academy in terms of recruitment, retention, and graduation rates for students of color is strengthening the STEM career pipeline in Arkansas. The Academy equips STEM Scholars with the knowledge and skills they need to excel beyond college. Scholars have landed internships at more than 50 locations all over the world. Graduates have found positions at Fortune 500 companies like Ball Aerospace, General Electric, Johnson & Johnson, and Microsoft. Others are pursuing graduate degrees and Ph.D.s in STEM disciplines, academic fields where researchers and instructors of color are severely underrepresented. 

Dr. Charles Colen, co-principal investigator for two of the Academy’s grants, stresses the importance of establishing high expectations early on. “We pride ourselves on making sure our students know what opportunities are available the moment they walk through the door,” he says. “Expectations are set and resources are provided. Recent graduates want jobs and, if they are willing to put in the work, the likelihood of that happening is very high.” 

In November 2012, the STEM leadership team at UAPB held a groundbreaking ceremony for the new $8.2 million STEM Academy and Conference Center. Along with standing as a public symbol of the university’s commitment to STEM, the Center now attracts scholars looking for modern lab facilities and a central location to study, collaborate, deliver professional presentations, and attend guest lectures. In short, the Center provides all of the necessary steps a student should take to enter the 21st-century workforce. 

Dr. Benjamin believes the STEM Scholars Academy is one of the best kept secrets in Arkansas. “We are directly impacting the statistics that represent where improvements need to be made,” she says. “We understand that the advancement of the Arkansas Delta depends on STEM and that it’s going to play an important role, and we want to be right there at the table in making it possible. Expect even more great things from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.”