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MATC Hosts 2nd Annual Scholars Program Conference

by Aaron Mack

(left to right) Allen Wills, Breana Payne, Tatianna Bonds, Dr. Judy Perkins, and Stefanie Neal at a panel session featuring graduate student success stories.

Attendees were greeted with a welcome breakfast at the Whittier Research Center on UNL campus in Lincoln, NE.

Students attending the closing dinner at the Grand Manse in Lincoln.

In the fall of 2012, MATC hosted the second annual Scholars Program Conference at the Whittier Research Center on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. The goal of the conference is to provide an opportunity for college students traditionally underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) graduate programs to learn about the opportunities present through a graduate-level education, as well as the process of applying for and transitioning into grad school. Historically, racial and ethnic minority groups and females represent only a small portion of students pursuing doctoral engineering degrees. The Scholars Program is designed to address potential obstacles to pursuing a graduate-level education that are unique to underrepresented students pursuing STEM careers.

The Scholars program was originally developed by Drs. Stephanie Adams and Laurence Rilett, currently of Virginia Tech University and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, respectively. Drs. Judy Perkins of Prairie View A&M University and Erick Jones of the University of Texas at Arlington later became collaborators on the project. The program is part of an ongoing outreach effort by MATC to enhance student opportunity and educational awareness.

“The goal was to fill a gap in terms of preparation and exposure to all the graduate opportunities that are available to minority students,” said Dr. Perkins. “We didn’t see that there was such a program that existed…and that would do it in a very specialized way, and a personable way.”

“There is a national need for educating students in these areas,” remarked Dr. Jones. “A lot of undergraduates get their degrees in engineering in the STEM fields. The challenge is that once they graduate, because they’re smart people, companies will hire them on, but not in STEM jobs. Research suggests that if you get your graduate degree in STEM fields, you’re more than likely to work in those STEM fields. [The program] is a real opportunity to talk to students who are in the time between their junior year and graduatation, and identifying that, if you want to continue in a STEM field, to be competitive, you probably should go to graduate school.”

Students at the conference attended a series of targeted skill-building and motivational sessions, keynote addresses, and informational discussions led by a diverse team of science and engineering faculty from minority serving institutions across the country and Region VII partnering universities. Participating faculty members were selected for their extensive research experience and their desire to work with underrepresented students. The faculty also represented a wide range of career interests. Examples of conference session themes included, “Why Graduate School?”; “Choosing a Graduate Program: Making a Short List”; and “Understanding Funding and Budgeting Finances.”

Keynote speakers selected for their notable career accomplishments in research and higher education also showcased their personal narratives to offer guidance to students thinking about pursuing graduate degrees. This year’s keynote speakers included Dr. Louis A. Vazquez of New Mexico State University, Dr. Karen Butler-Purry of Texas A&M University, and Dr. Howard G. Adams of H.G. Adams and Associates, Inc.

A select panel of outstanding graduate students also discussed their own experiences involving the process of transitioning from undergraduate to graduate programs.

During the conference, student reactions to the material and proceedings were collected via surveys and personal interviews during daily “town hall” sessions, as part of an effort to continually evaluate and improve the program’s effectiveness. Reactions from the 32 conference participants were later quantitatively assessed by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Bureau of Sociological Research.

The results showed statistically significant improvements in participants’ pre- to post-survey mean scores in variables such as plans to attend graduate school, understanding of the application process for graduate programs, expectations held by graduate programs, how graduate school will differ from undergrad, how to find an institution that is the best fit for their personal interests and career plans, how to choose a faculty mentor, and funding opportunities and budgeting while in school. Overall, the program had a definite measurable impact for the 32 students who attended.

MATC plans to expand the Scholars Program Conference in the future. The next Scholars Program Conference will occur in 2013, when students will be invited from Haskell Indian Nations University. Program coordinators will also continue the evaluation of student responses in order to continually improve the program. To facilitate the goal of reaching out to as many students as possible, the conference presentations and video highlights are available online. You can view the material by clicking here (youtube) and here (vimeo).