Bringing Low-Income Students Into STEM Education, Daniel R. Porterfield, Ph.D., April 3, 2014


In January, as part of the White House’s summit on college opportunity, the Posse Foundation announced a bold five-year scholarship initiative to educate 500 low- or moderate-income students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines at 10 leading American colleges and universities, including Franklin & Marshall College (F&M).

Powered by $70 million of investment from the colleges and the Posse Foundation, this project should be cause for celebration across the country, but especially in the cities from which the scholars will be drawn like Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, Boston and New York.
Future generations may well recognize this project as an important turning point in American higher education. Why do I say this?

First, because America urgently needs to create the next generation of STEM leaders from the full array of talented students nationwide. The United States owes much of its global leadership to our ability to educate extraordinary scientists, engineers, and innovators. To cite just one example, Wanda Austin — CEO of the Aerospace Corporation, which is responsible for the Pentagon’s satellites and space programs — is a Bronx-born F&M math major, and the first in her family to go to college.

Today, America’s global leadership is threatened because too few U.S. high-school students achieve at high levels in math and science and pursue STEM degrees or careers — especially lower-income women and minorities, who overwhelmingly represent the future demographic growth of the country. We need to reverse that trend if we are to pursue vital national priorities such as strengthening public health, energy independence, environmental sustainability, biomedical innovation, national security, public education, and local job creation.

Second, it works. Posse sends a strong opportunity message to public school students and attracts a deep pool of talent. The program provides students with leadership development in high school, a pre-college STEM boot camp, faculty mentors, and the cohesive support of a group of similarly driven peers. Most importantly, the results Posse is getting debunk the myth that low-income students can’t succeed in college.

F&M’s STEM Posse initiative began in 2011 in Miami, when we enrolled our first cohort of ten scholars based on a model that Brandeis University piloted with New York City students a few years earlier. This cohort of STEM scholars earned freshman GPAs substantially above the overall class average, even with their math- and science-heavy curricula, and, as sophomores, many are doing research with faculty.

There’s Amy Reyes from Miami’s School for Advanced Studies, who has a 3.7 GPA taking Calculus III and Linear Algebra. There’s Marvin Nicoleau from Miami Norland Senior High School, who has a 3.4 GPA and is doing genomics research with a professor. And there’s Carolina Giraldo from Mast Academy, whose brave parents fled Columbia to give their children better lives; she’s earning a 3.6 GPA in pre-med courses and made the all-conference novice rowing team.


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