Cal Poly Pomona will use funding from a new $5 million U.S. Department of Education grant to increase student research opportunities, establish transfer pathways with partnering community colleges and create an advisory board of industry leaders in the science and tech fields.
The five-year grant, which is designated for Hispanic Serving Institutions and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs, will be used to launch Project STARS (Student Success and Transfer Articulation through Research and Support Services).
“The goal of the program is to enhance the institution’s ability to engage, retain and graduate students, especially in STEM,” said Winny Dong, who serves as the faculty director for both the Office of Undergraduate Research and the Learn Through Discovery Initiative. “The way we engage and retain them is through undergraduate research – opportunities to do it, trainings for it and mentors to guide them through it.”
Project STARS is part of an effort to meet the goals of the CSU-wide Graduation Initiative 2025 and close equity gaps, so a key aspect of the program is serving underserved populations, Dong said.
“Students at Cal Poly Pomona who do undergraduate research are twice as likely to graduate than those who don’t,” she said. “This is true even when we control for socioeconomic and other background factors.”
Other aims for the program, which launched Oct. 1, include establishing a learning community for STEM faculty at Cal Poly Pomona, Citrus College and Mt. San Antonio College, hiring post-docs to serve as research mentors, and participating in the CSU-wide STEM NET to share best practices for keeping students engaged.
A Pathway to Graduation
One of the key components of Project STARS involves working with Mt. SAC and Citrus colleges on a pathways program to improve the success of transfer students.
Civil Engineering Assistant Professor Jeyoung Woo, one of the co-principal investigators on the grant, recalled analyzing the data of transfer students in his department and identifying that the majority had completed only a few of the lower division engineering courses at their previous institutions.
After investigating the causes, Woo said he found that some transfer students didn’t complete the articulated lower-division engineering courses due to a fear of hurting their GPAs, while others attended community colleges that offered few, if any, engineering courses.
Both these factors mean that it would take longer than two years for transfer students to graduate from CPP.
In 2019, the two-year graduation rate for engineering transfer students was at 3.4 percent and the four-year graduation rate for engineering transfer students was 78 percent, according to Woo. One of the goals of the CSU Graduation Initiative (GI) 2025 is to increase the two-year transfer graduation rate to 45 percent and four-year transfer graduation rate to 85 percent by 2025 across all 23 CSU campuses
Cal Poly Pomona is working with the Mt. SAC and Citrus to develop a pathway program so that students can get a certificate of completion after passing the articulated lower-division engineering courses that will enable them to earn points toward admission to the university.
“We expect that this pathway program will encourage transfer students to take more of these pathway courses to produce transfer-ready students,” Woo said.
Forging Connections to Industry
Aerospace Engineering Associate Professor Navid Nakhjiri, one of the program’s co-principal investigators, will tap into his experience in working with industry to help bolster opportunities for students in research. For the past few years, Nakhjiri has been collaborating with JPL, which has a program called JPL Crowdsourcing Initiative that connects scientists wanting to conduct more research on a topic with local universities who can lend a hand.
Project STARS will connect faculty and students with research opportunities at JPL and other companies. The program aims to close equity gaps for students by providing chances to participate in research and get exposure to industry leaders, Nakhjiri said.
“One of the reasons we are trying to promote research is to give the students an incentive that if you get involved, this research is giving you a skillset and a connection to industry,” he said. “If we promote this properly to the right students and bring in mentors to help, then the students get a chance to explore these opportunities, which can help them find a career in STEM after graduation.”
Students participating in the program will attend technical conferences and learn important skills, including how to investigate, the process of working through a problem in research, and how to present their ideas and findings to others.
Dong said the research opportunities for students will be paid, so that helps eliminate some barriers to getting involved.
“Many of our students have to work to support their education, so it is not possible for them to take time out, aside from work and their studies, to do more,” she said. “The STARS program allows students to earn a stipend while engaging in a high-impact practice that will help them graduate and prepare them for a career after graduation.”