Sabrina Hessinger, left, Delana Nivens and George Shields.

NSF $1 Million Grant Supports Undergraduate Research

(June 1, 2009) A five-year, $1 million dollar grant awarded to Armstrong Atlantic State University will allow entering freshmen to begin conducting scientific research in the university's laboratories this summer, weeks before they step foot in a classroom for fall classes.

The grant from the National Science Foundation's Division of Undergraduate Education Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP) will support the establishment of learning communities focusing on undergraduate research for students with a desire to pursue careers in science and mathematics, and who demonstrate a strong aptitude in those fields.

The grant establishes unique freshmen experiences each year for up to 20 incoming undergraduate students. They will perform undergraduate research and obtain intensive new skills in applied mathematics over two summers. These students will participate in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) freshmen-year learning communities, which facilitate student retention and success as majors in the College of Science and Technology.

"The uniqueness of this undergraduate research experience is that it is built upon a framework of undergraduate research learning communities that form connections among students as well as between students and faculty," said George Shields, AASU dean of the College of Science and Technology and principal investigator of the grant.

The first group of incoming freshman students will arrive on campus June 15 for a five-week program of full-time research. The students, who this year come from across Georgia, will reside in the university's apartment-style residence halls. They will join 33 current AASU students already conducting summer research, many of whom will mentor the incoming freshmen researchers. Twenty-two AASU faculty members from the College of Science and Technology will provide close mentoring and guidance. Social activities and a one-week math tutorial at the end of the summer are part of the program.

The scholars will work directly with faculty members and the faculty member's undergraduate research students. One of the unique features of this type of research at AASU is that students work with faculty, not graduate students as at larger universities. STEP scholars are mentored at every step of the way by faculty and students.

Students who complete their freshmen year as STEP scholars will be eligible to perform research next summer and to mentor new, incoming STEP scholars. Each participating student in the STEP grant program will make a poster presentation to the campus community in the fall.

"This represents a concerted effort on the part of Armstrong Atlantic State University to increase the level of undergraduate research on this campus," said Delana Nivens, AASU associate professor of chemistry and co-principal investigator of the grant. "AASU offers talented, bright students the opportunity to explore careers in science and mathematics and carry on research right here without a need to look elsewhere. The undergraduate research culture in the College of Science and technology is growing and vibrant. It is something that our faculty members in the college believe in and are committed to long-term."

Sabrina Hessinger, AASU associate professor of mathematics, also is a co-principal investigator of the grant and will coordinate the evaluation of the program with a professional evaluator. The STEP initiative, coupled with a number of other science and math initiatives in the College of Science and Technology, is expected to increase science and math student graduation rates by at least 22 percent.

Undergraduate research affords qualified students the opportunity to attend scientific conferences to present their research findings, while increasing overall academic performance. Many students who engage in undergraduate research will pursue masters and doctoral degrees.

The NSF STEP grant's broader impact includes an increase in the enrollment of students, especially women, minorities, rural and first-generation students. The overall goals of the program are to improve retention and academic success. The College of Science and Technology is working with the AASU Office of Admissions to use this program to help recruit high-achieving science and math students from across the nation.

For further information about the STEP program, contact Delana Nivens at 912.344.2964 or visit i