STEM support program makes 'PSU feel like home' for transfers
Author: Cristina Rojas, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Posted: May 10, 2020

For many transfer students, the jump from community college to a four-year university like Portland State can be daunting.

"It's kind of a jarring experience," said Rob Lewis, a chemistry major who transferred from Portland Community College in 2018. "You don't know what to expect. You don't know anyone. You don't know any professors. You don't know where buildings are."

 But thanks to a transfer program for STEM (science, technology, engineering and technology) students, Lewis, 32, found a supportive group of peers and faculty he could lean on. 

In the first year, the cohort of 11 spent hours together. They had a yearlong junior cluster course together, and blew off steam with regular happy hours. They shared their frustrations and struggles, and celebrated their successes — not only with one another, but with their faculty mentors who provided a safe space for them to grow and become more confident. Though they don't share a class this year, they still connect over group chat, study together in the library, and meet up when they can.

"Being together and having the constant reassurance of the group really made PSU feel like home," said Lewis, who is headed to the University of Rochester to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry. "This program was critical to my success. My friends in my cohort and mentors — they were just always there for me for whatever I needed."

That strong sense of belonging and community is what four PSU professors set out to create with the S-STEM program, which was funded by a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Now in its second year, the program is geared toward supporting low-income STEM students to successfully transfer from community college, graduate and pursue graduate degrees or find success in STEM careers.

"They're going from an environment where they were one of 20 to one of hundreds in a large lecture class, and may have some imposter syndrome around becoming a scientist or knowing whether they're on the right path," said Erin Shortlidge, the lead PI of the grant and assistant professor of biology. "Our goal was to see if we could build a program that would provide a community such that students have a place where they belong, a place where they can get resources and a place where they can have a community of folks who are on the same trajectory as they are, whether they're in the same major or not."

The program provides students with $16,800 in scholarship support across two years, a three-term junior cluster course series that builds their research and professional skills, professional development, mentoring, and connection to research and internship experiences.

The first year begins with a weeklong summer "bridge" program, where the cohort gets oriented to PSU, learns essential academic skills and becomes familiar with one another and their faculty mentors — Shortlidge; Gwen Shusterman, professor of chemistry; Suzanne Estes, associate professor of biology; and Rick Hugo, assistant research professor of geology.

By the first day of their junior cluster course — developed as part of the S-STEM program — they already know their instructor and classmates, whose majors range from biology and chemistry to computer science and engineering. Throughout the three-term cluster course, they build the skills, knowledge and social capital necessary to succeed in STEM fields, all the while working on a real-world research project. Both cohorts have done experiments as part of an NSF-funded study of green roof impacts on air quality.

"The work they're doing in the cluster course is contributing to broader scientific knowledge and giving them practical research experience," Shortlidge said.

For Allie Hanson, a computer science major, the course introduced her to the research process and reshaped her career plans. When she first came to PSU, she thought she would go into industry and become a software engineer, but soon learned that she enjoyed research. Last summer, she worked as a research assistant in the Asynchronous Research Center on campus.

"Going through that experience solidified that I really want to do research," said Hanson, who's headed to University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, to pursue her Ph.D. "I want to make technological advancements. I like the process and all that it entails."

All students in the first cohort were placed in a research lab or internship. Some, like Hanson and Lewis, found positions working alongside professors at PSU. Others had off-campus research experiences as close as OHSU or as far as University of Nebraska-Lincoln. 
Preliminary results from eight focus groups show that students in S-STEM as well as other STEM support programs like LSAMP, Build EXITO and McNair reported higher self-efficacy, scientific identity, scientific values and a greater sense of belonging at PSU than other students.
Shusterman said a key part of the program has been the strong faculty connections that students have had. The students have mentors with whom they can regularly check in, whether they are struggling in a class or need help navigating graduate school applications.
"It's been such a life-changing program," Hanson, 24, said. "I really felt so supported by the faculty and they've helped me get through school. The same is true for my peers. Having them to rely on for support and having people that can relate to you is so important."
The hope is that PSU can provide both the financial and institutional support necessary to continue the program and reach more students.
"It's great that we're providing this experience, but this is such a small percentage of our underrepresented STEM transfer students," Shortlidge said.

Photos by Cristina Rojas. In top photos, students in the second cohort conduct experiments as part of their bridge week and junior cluster course. In bottom photo, Allie Hanson joins her peers from the first cohort to speak to students from the second cohort during their summer bridge program. Video by Research & Graduate Studies.