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USF-HHMI STEM Academy Welcomes First Cohort

A group of 120 freshmen is getting a jump start on the rigors of college level science, technology, engineering and math studies.


Undergraduate Studies Associate Dean and Director of the Office of Undergraduate Studies Richard Pollenz serves as USF-HHMI Stem Academy, seen here (front row left) with high school students and mentors in a precursor program upon which the academy is based.  Photos by Christine Brown | Innovative Education


By Barbara Melendez
      USF News

TAMPA, Fla. (Aug. 11, 2015) – They didn’t get the date wrong. The 120 freshmen on campus a full week before Week of Welcome belong to the trailblazing inaugural class of scholars in the new USF-HHMI STEM Academy.

Though not a physical building on campus, USF-HHMI STEM Academy is a substantial destination. Professor Richard S. Pollenz and his colleagues are making sure it makes its presence felt as a transformative program where teaching comes with mentoring and learning comes with true purpose.

Open to incoming freshmen who are committed to majors within the College of Arts and Sciences – and in subsequent years to include the College of Engineering – USF-HHMI STEM Academy is offering a unique opportunity. Structured as five-and-a-half-days of immersion, the program was created to prepare the participating scholars for a solid start on the path to graduation.

The academy’s scholars will be able to focus on college and what’s expected of them right ahead of being bombarded with everything that comes with being new in college – new friends, new policies and procedures, new spaces and places. It leads right into freshman year orientation as well as 150 Week of Welcome activities.

Intensive Enrichment

During STEM Academy week, the students will interact with accomplished professors in their fields along with graduate students who are well on the way to where the freshmen are headed. Each day is filled with workshops, introductions to college-level approaches to learning, thinking and acting on the information the scholars will encounter in their upcoming studies.

They will be introduced to science and health careers, as well as learn how to prepare for them. Undergraduate study may just be getting started, but the scholars will begin looking at what it takes to get into medical and graduate school as well as the reasons for going and how to get the most out of it.


Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science Education Senior Director David Asai.  Photo: Courtesy of HHMI

This intensive enrichment program is free thanks to a generous grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) which plays an influential role in advancing scientific research and education in the United States. The institute’s Science Education Senior Director David Asai will deliver the keynote address during the opening program on Sunday Aug 16. “We are fortunate that Dr. Asai will be here and I am sure he will make the inaugural class of scholars think about what is possible,” Pollenz said.

Because USF is a renowned research university, quite naturally, research receives strong emphasis. The scholars will develop an undergraduate research action plan and engage in SMART Lab math demo exercises.

A symbolic incentive for being admitted to the program will be a STEM Academy-branded white laboratory coat – the standard lab coat worn by scientists and researchers. The opening white coat ceremony, attended by USF System President Judy Genshaft will “help all of the scholars feel part of their new community and will be something they can proudly wear throughout their USF career,” Pollenz said.

Women Are Well-represented

The majority of the students are young women, who make up 72 per cent of the group. Biomedical sciences majors predominate with 83. Cell molecular and chemistry/biochemistry majors are in second and third place with 13 and 11 majors respectively. There are seven health science majors. Microbiology and engineering have two each. Integrated animal biology and physics have one each.

Love of travel, horseback riding, bow-hunting, puns, fishing, music and simply hanging out with friends makes them a varied and interesting lot while their future career plans range from forensic psychiatry and thoracic surgery to pediatrics and chemical engineering, to name a few. One scholar is already a licensed practical nurse.

The mentors, all doctoral candidates - Mariano Alvarez, Jessica Brunquell, Jordan Dollbaum, Trill Finalyson, Danielle Findley, Jeff Olberding and Charly Stinson - are ready to work with them all.

“I think that I'm most excited about getting so many students involved and knowledgeable early in their academic careers,” said Findley. “Just reflecting on my own experience as well as what I see many of my undergraduate students go through, it seems like so many students are capable of achieving a lot more and enjoying the experience a lot more if they were afforded the right opportunities.”

She sees the value of having “a source to go to for questions as they navigate college,” she said.

“Also, while I am personally excited about the success of this particular program in terms of student achievement, retention, etc., I am really also hopeful that it will inform future programs both locally and nationally.”

The students are equally ready to dive into college life.

Dollbaum, from Tampa, said, “I don't have a major right now, but am an exploratory student focusing in the health and sciences areas. I look forward to the STEM program helping me figure out what my Intendedmajor will be and meeting others in the STEM program.”

Andrea Mockabee Macias, from Veracruz, New Mexico is majoring in cell and molecular biology. Though she knows she wants to “pursue a health profession, but as of right nowI still haven't made up my mind,” she said, and added, “I chose this route because i was deeply influenced by the novel ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.’ After reading this novelI was incredibly perplexed and curious to find out more about cells at their most miniscule level.”

Proven Benefits

Pollenz, associate dean in Undergraduate Studies and director of the Office for Undergraduate Research, said he is very excited about the inaugural STEM Academy program because of the impact it will have on the STEM scholars as well as “everyone who is involved in working with the program.”


The success of Pollenz' STEM program for high school
students inspired the creation of  USF-HHMI STEM Academy.

He conducts a pre-college program for high school students at USF on which STEM Academy is based in large part, therefore he knows firsthand what can be accomplished in such a setting.

“We have observed program participants building connections and community with each other in a short five-day program and we’ve seen the connections sustained years after the program was over,” he said. “That’s one of the greatest benefits.”

He added, “The Graduate mentors have been involved in professional development training since the spring semester and are excited to meet the Scholars in their groups and inspire them to action!

“Another great thing about the STEM Academy program is that the scholars will have a chance to serve as peer mentors to a class of 240 scholars that we will bring in fall 2016. Thus, although the program is only five-and- a-half days, they will remain connected to the Academy leadership, each other and the university for their entire USF career and we expect that the program will also help them build stronger connections within their majors to impact STEM retention,” he said.

“One thing is certain, these scholars will hit the ground running and will have the ability to provide demonstrated evidence of their skills to be future leaders at USF in academics, research and service.”

For more information about USF-HHMI STEM Academy click here or visit http://www.usf.edu/admissions/freshman/stem-academy/. Incoming first-year students for fall 2016 will be provided information to apply for the 2016 STEM Academy upon official admission to USF (January to May 2016).

Barbara Melendez can be reached at 813-974-4563

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