Million Dollar Grant Will Help USF Students STEP Ahead

Tampa Fla. (July 16, 2008) ---  Thanks to a National Science Foundation (NSF) three-year grant of $1,153,251, the University of South Florida will be able to "step" up its efforts to recruit, educate and retain students in the STEM disciplines - science, technology, engineering and math. The grant comes from the NSF "Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program," or STEP.

"Our goal is to increase graduation rates in math, sciences and engineering by 20 percent by retaining and motivating students who enter the Engineering and Life Sciences Calculus sequence," said Kandethody Ramachandran, the principal investigator on the grant and a professor in the USF Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

According to Ramachandran, USF is in the process of "remodeling its undergraduate curriculum" by emphasizing interdisciplinary work, critical thinking and inquiry-based learning. This grant will be used to extend those efforts into the STEM core courses.

According to Gordon Fox, associate professor of biology and co-PI on the STEP grant, the grant will provide a "one-stop shopping place" staffed by undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in STEM programs. It will be a place where students can get help with everything from biology to calculus.

"Student retention is a national problem that we are dealing with at the local level," said Fox. "At any given time, lots of students are in danger of dropping out. Whether they drop out or not often has a lot to do with how well they are doing in their math classes and how tightly their other science classes are tied to math classes."

According to Fox, one of the key parts of the grant will be several measures that tie biology and chemical engineering classes more closely to math classes by emphasizing how math is used in those areas.

The STEP project, said Ramachandran, has three components. First is a focus on developing a project-based component by which students will work with engineers and scientists in the community as a "bridge program." The second component includes a "peer leader program" utilizing top students who can be role models for other students and also offer the hands-on help, as Fox explained. Finally, undergraduate research will be enhanced and connected to the community and industry by completing hands-on projects developing out of the first step.

While stressed is the importance of the real world, hands-on aspects of the STEP program through "bridge projects" between USF and local industry and community organizations, another emphasis is on retaining students, especially female and minority science, engineering and math students.

"In many cases, students will be providing service to the community by solving real problems," explained Ramachandran. "This way, our STEP project will naturally develop and foster ties within the community. We hope that our program will become a model for other colleges and universities, especially those with engineering programs."

The University of South Florida is one of the nations top 63 public research universities as designated by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. USF received more than $310 million in research contracts and grants last year, and it is ranked by the National Science Foundation as one of the nation’s two fastest growing universities in terms of federal research and development expenditures.  The university has a $1.6 billion annual budget and serves 44,038 students on campuses in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota/Manatee and Lakeland. USF is a member of the Big East Athletic Conference.

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