STEP Up

NSF grant provides scholarships for students interested in science

Science and engineering majors have greater earning potential than students from nearly any other discipline. In fact, the National Science Foundation (NSF) states that half of scientists and engineers earn more than twice the national median income. But nationwide, employers and government agencies are seeing a shortage of people entering those fields.

It is a problem Peter Sheldon, a Randolph physics professor, knows all too well. For years, he watched too many students talk about entering Randolph’s engineering physics program only to choose other majors. Sheldon believes high schools were not preparing them for the pace and workload of college-level science and math.

“They have no idea how hard it is to be an engineer,” he said. “I’m not claiming that math or physics are harder than English or history—I would have a much harder time writing a poem than doing physics—but it takes more time to study to be an engineer.”

Sheldon believes a new science scholarship program at Randolph will help encourage more students to pursue physical science and math majors. Randolph was recently awarded a $600,000 grant from the NSF that will help students planning to enter these fields pay for college.

“This program will get them ahead and give them the tools to be as successful as they can be,” he said.

Sheldon and other colleagues began seeking the NSF grant several years ago to help pay for a summer transition program that allowed students to arrive on campus early to get acclimated to college-level science and math courses. Randolph provided funding for the summer program for three years while Sheldon and his team prepared and applied for the NSF grant.

“Peter’s proposal identified a real challenge in students’ preparation for STEM-related fields, and it presented a plausible solution to that challenge,” said Chris Burnley, former vice president for finance and administration. “We felt a need to provide the program with its initial funding in hopes of securing a grant to continue its existence.”

The College named the summer program Step Up to Physical Science and Engineering at Randolph (SUPER) and held it for the first time in 2010. The initial group of first-year students came to campus before the semester began to participate in two weeks of intensive math and science classes and activities.

Meanwhile, Sheldon led the committee preparing the NSF grant proposal, which included a plan to both recruit students qualified for the scholarships and help them meet the challenges of science courses once they were on campus. The grant was awarded last summer.

For two years beginning in the fall of 2013, the program will offer 24 four-year scholarships of up to $6,000 to students who plan to attend Randolph and major in the physical sciences or mathematics. In addition to the summer transition program, students will be provided enhanced career preparation services, including mentoring from local scientists and engineers. Sheldon is confident that this program will make a difference.

“This program will allow us to recruit and retain the best students interested in science,” he said. “These students will be the future of their fields.”