Program prepares first-year Emory students to study in STEM fields

By April Hunt | Emory Report | Sept. 15, 2016

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For four days before orientations began, 60 first-year Emory College students participated in the new STEM Pathways program, gaining an in-depth introduction to the science and technology fields they intend to pursue.

For four days before orientation began, 60 first-year Emory College students met with professors, administrators and mentors for an in-depth introduction to the science and technology fields they intend to pursue.

The STEM Pathways pre-orientation program is designed to give guidance and support for students who are the first generation in their families to attend college, or who are in identity groups that are underrepresented in technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers. The program, new this year, replaces and builds upon the legacy of two previous pre-college programs that boost both students and Emory.

The students gain a deeper understanding of the wide array of opportunities available within Emory College’s liberal arts curriculum, as well as developing a personal action plan for their academic careers, with sessions on study skills and developing a five-year plan.

Emory, meanwhile, continues to grow its diverse community of student scholars, many of whom will fill the one million new STEM jobs that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts by 2022 — just two years after the students earn their undergraduate degrees.

“We know that going into these areas of study it will be very rigorous, so we want to break down as many barriers as possible, so all of our students are successful,” says Julie Loppacher, an associate director in the Office for Undergraduate Education who helped develop the program curriculum.

STEM Pathways is a continuation of the Hughes Undergraduates Excelling in Science (HUES) and Getting a Leg Up at Emory (GLUE) programs that closed with the end of their grant funding last year.

Emory College of Arts and Sciences is funding the new program, which organizers expect to grow in the coming years as it builds on its own, and previous program, successes.

Students in the program have year-round access to other participants, mentors and professors.

“Most of our STEM students say they want to become doctors, but they have no idea of all the professions available to them, all the research possibilities that exist,” says Andrea Neal, an assistant director in Emory College and director of the summer EPIC program at the School of Medicine.

“With Emory College very committed to this, our students are going to get a glimpse of all that is open to them prior to them even taking an Emory course,” Neal says.

Mentoring and support

K’Mani Blyden, from Acworth, Georgia, is one of the students eager to explore his options. He expects to be a surgeon someday because of the hands-on work it requires.

STEM Pathways, too, has been a hands-on experience that lets him consider clearly the pressures that are coming, without feeling that pressure now.

“The relationships are crucial to the program,” he says. “This is a more relaxed way to meet and talk among ourselves, meet mentors and professors, and really get an idea of what’s ahead.”

Tracy McGill, a senior lecturer in Chemistry, is teaching two sections of Chemistry 141 this fall, to about 160 students.

She chose to kick off the semester with the STEM Pathways students because they arrive with such enthusiasm about Emory, she says, and are eager to discover what their path in the sciences will be.

“Meeting the faculty that will be teaching their classes is such an integral component to the program for us and for them,” she says. “We get a jump start on building our learning community and can really build on the passion of this engaged group of students.”

The mentors, older students who are also underrepresented minorities studying STEM fields, are also important in showing the array of coursework and majors available.

Junior Samantha Tall, for instance, is a psychology and linguistics major. She learned from the GLUE program that studying the humanities, while also taking the tough science courses, could set her apart when she applies for medical school.

“I’m the one telling them they can pursue their passions and still be in medicine,” Tall says. “I share that I shadowed medical research, and being in the lab is how I figured out I want to do more work with patients. Without resources like this program, you don’t always hear that.”

Opening new doors

Cora MacBeth, the assistant dean for the sciences at Emory College, says she is encouraged by such conversations, since they show first-year students the breadth of careers available and how a liberal arts education can get them there. The experience also helps create a continuum of students who will shape the program.

Next year, that means it will be Brianka Rainford giving the advice. This year, the first-year student from Durham, North Carolina, was busy taking in the idea that her plans of being a cardiothoracic surgeon might be, amazingly, limited.

Studying human health, she has learned, could mean working to prevent diseases instead of treating them.

She is also interested in studying psychology to understand medical behaviors after hearing about the first-year seminar with neuroscientist Gregory Berns, who has authored several studies looking at brain-imaging data and behavior research in dogs.

“Pathways solidified some of what I already knew and gave me specifics on the broad ideas I had about studying a science,” Rainford said. “It’s opened new doors I didn’t know existed.”