Feature News

North Central Earns Impressive Grant for Student Scholars in STEM from the National Science Foundation

Hannah Brauer

Oct 17, 2022

North Central College has been awarded $750,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Scholarship in STEM (S-STEM) program to provide funding for the Leadership Experience and Advancement Program in STEM (LEAPS), a new scholarship program for students studying biology, computer science, environmental studies, mathematics, and neuroscience. North Central professors Reed Perkins, professor and director of environmental studies, and Joanna Weremijewicz, assistant professor of biology, secured the funding for the program that will provide support to 15 high-ability, low-income scholars throughout their careers at the College.

In addition to offering scholarships to 15 students, the NSF grant will fund specially-designed programming to support the scholars. To address the potential needs of these scholars, Weremijewicz and Perkins collected feedback from professionally-facilitated focus groups of current North Central students, targeting the needs of transfer students in particular. The faculty members also collaborated with several groups on campus, including the Office of Admission's transfer admission group and Cardinal First, North Central’s first-generation student program. “This grant would not have been possible without the enthusiasm of everyone on campus,” commented Weremijewicz. As Perkins adds, “We are leveraging every institutional strength we have to help these students identify and leverage their own strengths.”

The cross-campus coordination resulted in program features like an innovative summer bridge program, giving the scholars the chance to acclimate to their new College ahead of the fall semester. Not only will the novel program allow these students to become familiar with North Central, it will also ensure research experience for the students through North Central’s Summer Undergraduate Scholarship Program (SUSP). Though the scholars can apply for additional SUSP opportunities in their second year, LEAPS guarantees these students placement in undergraduate research during the summer bridge program, offering the scholars a head-start in their academic and professional careers.  

“For my students, and in my personal experience, everything you learn in science courses can start to click with research experiences,” asserted Weremijewicz. “Having research experience builds hard skills, but it also builds critical thinking and problem-solving, soft skills that employers are looking for.” Adding on to their summer research experience, the students will also have multiple networking and career development opportunities throughout the program.

Beyond the summer bridge program, LEAPS includes built-in features to drive the scholars toward success throughout their careers at North Central. LEAPS will encourage students to recognize and lean into their own strengths, hoping to ultimately foster leaders in the STEM workforce. As Perkins states, the idea is “not to fix the things that are wrong, but to strengthen the qualities that are strong.” 

Another important highlight of LEAPS is the faculty-peer mentorship. In response to feedback collected from the focus groups of current transfer students, the scholars will be personally connected with several mentors to assist them in designing and executing a plan for their academic success. They’ll be connected with faculty members in their respective STEM disciplines as well as staff members in multiple offices. They’ll have access to peer mentors and the opportunity to become peer mentors themselves, creating the ability to develop and individualize their own network of support at North Central.

It is a rare honor to receive an award from NSF—and even bigger honor for an institution to earn more than one. In fact, this is not North Central’s first significant grant from NSF this year. Earlier in 2022, Weremijewicz received NSF grant funding for her proposal to lead faculty-student research in biology, a large project that runs through April of 2027. That kind of momentum speaks to North Central’s dedication to providing the institutional support students need for their individual careers at the College and beyond.

According to Shelly Galasso ’05, director of the Office of Sponsored Research and Programs, “Our peer institutions have secured NSF S-STEM funding. It was time for North Central to prove we can compete for and win these kinds of major funding opportunities.” Even more important are the opportunities the sizable grant and LEAPS will offer students. “It’s about equity,” said Perkins. “We’re continuing to move to a place where North Central is seen by all students as a place within their reach and as an opportunity to build their strengths.”

The NSF grant for LEAPS presents a unique opportunity for 15 scholars to “reach the finish line” at the College, and eventually to become leaders in the STEM field. “There is a shared sense of excitement and energy around this project across campus,” said Galasso. Just as LEAPS built on the success of other programs at the College, so the intent is for LEAPS to model innovative support that can be adopted across the institution. “(Just as) we hope to impact the 15 students, we hope they will impact us,” noted Perkins.

About the NSF’s S-STEM Program: 

S-STEM's purpose is “to enable low-income students with academic ability, talent or potential to pursue successful careers in promising STEM fields. Ultimately, the S-STEM program seeks to increase the number of low-income students who graduate with a S-STEM eligible degree and contribute to the American innovation economy with their STEM knowledge,” according to NSF. For more information about the NSF and the S-STEM program to support the “recruitment, retention, … and graduation in STEM,” click visit the NSF's website.