PSU receives $5M federal grant to improve access to STEM education for underrepresented students

Portland State University has received nearly $5 million from the National Science Foundation to improve access to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education for underrepresented students and to pay them a living wage

The five-year project will work to reduce the urban-rural divide by awarding nearly $3 million in scholarships to students from both PSU and Heritage University, a rural, primarily undergraduate institution on the Yakama Reservation in Washington. 

STEM Student

“Our dream is that we’re offering the students enough financial support to make sure they can live as a student and not carry a job while they’re in school,” said PSU Maseeh College of Engineering & Computer Science Associate Professor Gwynn Johnson, who is the grant’s lead investigator. “When I started college, I was this high achieving student and I was underrepresented. No one in my family went to college. This project really addresses me as a young undergrad.”

Of the $5 million, more than 60% is allocated to student scholarships. The other 40% will be used to build STEM career pathways for Heritage students by creating a pathway to undergraduate programs at Portland State.

The first cohort will be selected in the fall, and will include 10 students from each university.

Johnson said they will advertise to high schools and community colleges soon, seeking high-achieving students who are generally underrepresented in science and technology.

That includes first-generation, female and minority students.

She expects there to be applicants that exceed the scholarship’s expectations but don’t make the first round of funding. Those students will go to the top of the list in the next round. Transfer students will likely make up a portion of future cohorts as well.

The project is centered on the theme of environmental pollution in the Columbia River Basin and the Pacific Northwest. Students who receive scholarships will have the opportunity to either participate in research or hold internships related to the theme.

Johnson said the faculty group working on the project — which includes PSU Honors College Assistant Professor Olyssa Starry and College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Professor Elise Granek — are committed to ensuring women are empowered in engineering and science, and the NSF grant should play a role to make things just a little bit easier.

“I’m honored to play a part in helping students get through their career,” Johnson said.

Alexander Alexiades, Associate Professor of Environmental Science at Heritage, said the grant will leave Heritage well-positioned to serve a greater number of low-income and minority students and allow the students to graduate mostly debt-free. Additional funding awarded by the NSF earlier this year will help Heritage create a comprehensive support system for STEM students, he added.

“I’m very excited about the opportunities these grants will help us bring to highly qualified students with great financial need,” Alexiades said. “This award will also help us fine-tune culturally-responsive learning procedures aimed at developing undergraduate students’ science identity and sense of community.”

This latest NSF grant also isn’t the first awarded to PSU to help STEM students. In 2018, the university received $1 million from NSF to aid community college students who are transferring to PSU to complete their STEM degrees. Another $1 million was awarded in 2017 from NSF to help increase diversity in computer science.

As part of the new grant, a research study will also be conducted to consider the relationship between research experiences, sense of community and self-efficacy.