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Highlands University Awarded Grant to Boost College Graduates in the Sciences 

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Photo Courtesy Jake Erickson/Highlands Media Arts

September 30, 2021

Highlands University has been awarded nearly $300,000 in grant funding for a program dedicated to increasing the number of students graduating in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, fields.  

The grant was issued by the United States Department of Agriculture’s research branch, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, or NIFA. The grant will fund three years of summer programming that will boost four-year degrees in STEM fields and will strengthen the relationship between Highlands University, Santa Fe Community College, Luna Community College, and the Community College of Denver.   

“One of the biggest issues regarding STEM education is that we’re woefully short of STEM graduates.  In terms of job placement and job fulfillment, we’re way behind in computer science and STEM,” said Ian Williamson, associate vice president for Academic Affairs, Grants and Contracts.  “We’re also behind in minority STEM graduates, and so a lot of our STEM funding is centered on minority students.” 

Like Highlands University, the three community college partners included in the grant are Hispanic-Serving institutions. According to Shantini Ramakrishnan, co-principal investigator for the grant and conservation and restoration education program manager at the Conservation Science Center @HU, working with other Hispanic-serving institutions will increase support for Hispanic students interested in pursuing STEM degrees.  

The program is based on a similar program Ramakrishnan ran successfully for three years prior to her arrival at Highlands. She said that this program will take place over the course of two weeks between the end of the spring semester and the beginning of the summer semester. Students at the participating community colleges who are finished with the first year of their associate degree in science will be eligible to participate. There will be 24 spots available, or eight students from each of the community colleges.  

Participants will spend two weeks on the Highlands campus, and Ramakrishnan said that it’s a way for students who may be building their community college learning around their work schedules to experience camaraderie within the scientific community.  

“Community college students are not necessarily surrounded by the scientific community on a consistent basis because they have other commitments,” said Ramakrishnan. “We are working exclusively with Hispanic-serving institutions, which have traditionally led the way in first-generation college degree seekers. So, students may not necessarily have mentors in their life in the sciences, and they may not have a lot of the luxury of time to think about themselves as researchers and scientists. But at some point in the degree journey, that becomes critical.” 

Ramakrishnan emphasized the importance of students in the STEM fields having the time and space to consider their possible paths, and she said there are limited job opportunities for associate degrees in STEM fields. She said she is hopeful that the program will increase enrollment in four-year STEM degrees at Highlands.  

Faculty members from each of the four institutions will be involved in the two-week program. Potential topics include animal behavior, water quality, soil science, bison ecology, forestry, biometrics, and harvester ants, among others. Ramakrishnan said that students will also have the opportunity to zero in on a particular topic and develop their own research questions.  

According to Ramakrishan, the first week of the program will build competencies and confidence. Lessons will include fieldwork and guest lectures and will help students learn various ways to conduct an experiment.   

“Then, as the first week progresses, we’ll give the students more ownership as well as more opportunity to think through and suggest methodologies,” said Ramakrishnan. “The reason that’s important is because there’s a perception that science is this unattainable thing that only really smart people can figure out. “What we want to do is make science more accessible, and demonstrate that if you’re trying to measure x, there are multiple ways you can measure x, and you have the ability to figure that out.”  

“We all think through problems differently—faculty are also thinking through these problems alongside the students. So, they’re getting to see how we brainstorm and troubleshoot and that gives students a grounded view of faculty and helps them build the competence they need in order to be successful” said Sebastian Medina, biology professor and principal investigator for the grant. 

Ramakrishan said the first week is an intensive that allows students to learn how to problem-solve and find the information they need.  

“The process then culminates to the students developing a research question themselves, and then implementing a study design,” said Ramakrishnan. “So, the first part of the program is demonstrating and teaching, and then they take that and apply it to their own research question.”  

During the second week, Ramakrishnan said students will collect data, synthesize it, write an abbreviated literature review, and present their findings to their cohort. Sites for field work will depend on students’ research questions, but may include Rio Mora Wildlife Refuge, and both public and private lands in the Gallinas and Mora watersheds.  

“The intensive will supplement the education that they’ve had in the classroom, but now they’re going to apply that theoretical background in the field,” said Ramakrishnan. “And because it’s an intensive, there isn’t necessarily a whole lot of time to dwell on doubts about whether or not they can do it. All their energy and attention is focused on what needs to be done, and that’s a critical journey in a student’s career. When they’ve completed the program and have had time to digest it, the evidence is clear that they were capable of completing the whole thing.”  

Medina said the program provides a jumpstart for students because it provides academic credit at the community colleges and is transferable to NMHU as credit towards their program of study. He said he also hopes the program helps students build a sense of belonging and familiarity with Highlands.  

“It’s a really important grant in building a network with our local, regional community colleges, and helping those students get established, build a sense of leadership and community and then help them get into four-year institutions, especially Highlands,” said Medina. “I think it’s critical, and especially in capturing those students that may otherwise slip through the cracks.” 

“This STEM education is an opportunity for leadership,” said Williamson. “It’s also an opportunity for students to be exposed to Highlands, so that if they are interested in pursuing their STEM education further, they have a sense of what that might look like.” 

Ramakrishnan said that pursuing a four-year degree can feel like a big commitment to many students, and she hopes that this program will help community college students establish the networks and connections they need to encourage them to continue their education.  

“We can’t build relationships in the same way with hundreds of students, but we can do it with smaller cohorts at a time,” said Ramakrishnan. “Students who have started their associate’s science degree and signed up for this course are taking a step. And we’re investing in them in the hope that they will become future stewards of our lands.”