Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are the hot disciplines in higher education but Hispanics, who are a growing segment of the population, are poorly represented in STEM programs.
Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry and Westchester Community College based in Valhalla are partnering to do something about that disparity. The U.S. Department of Education has awarded Mercy College $4 million for a five-year program to increase graduation rates for Hispanic and low-income students in STEM programs.
“When the congressman’s office called, I was so excited,” said program director Nagaraj Rao, a Mercy mathematics professor, referring to U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey. “If we implement this well, so many students will be helped and will have great careers.”
Team STEM, as the program is called, aims to recruit more than 700 Hispanic and low-income students and graduate at least 27 percent with STEM degrees within six years.
Many of the students will start out at Westchester Community College, and the hope is to double the number who transfer to Mercy’s STEM programs.
Team STEM will use several methods to recruit and retain students. A summer program will prepare students to progress from high school to college.
Collaboration will be an important element. Students and professors, for example, will work together on research and community outreach projects that will culminate in conference presentations.
Mentoring could be crucial. Educational research shows that such programs help students stay on course, Rao said. But rather than rely on one type of program, as is usually done, Team STEM will use three levels of mentoring.
Staff members will be assigned to each student to support them through their education, helping with issues such as financial aid and career counseling.
Professors will guide students in their specialties.
And students who have already shown success with difficult courses will be trained to lead collaborative learning teams.
“It’s not their brain power that is limiting them,” Rao said of the Hispanic students he has taught. “It’s the background and environment that is limiting them. Given proper help, they will be very strong.”
Rao began teaching in India, where he earned a master’s in mathematics. He felt drawn to obtaining a Ph.D. in America and he got his wish, earning a doctorate in applied mathematics at the University of Rhode Island. He also got a master’s degree in computer science at City College.
He joined the Mercy faculty in 1983.
Mercy offers majors in six STEM programs: biology, computer information science, computer science, cybersecurity, mathematics and psychology.
Team STEM will begin recruiting students in the spring. Many will be recruited from within the college, among eligible students in other programs.
Westchester County also has a large pool of potential students. Nearly one-fourth of the population, about 250,000 people, is under the age of 18. Inner-city communities have a 10 percent poverty rate, according to census data cited in the grant application. Twenty-four percent of the county population is Hispanic or Latino.
“Their participation in STEM is extremely low,” Rao said, “and that demographic is growing. The need is huge.”
Each time a worthy student graduates, he said, “the whole family is lifted up.”
“That’s what motivates me and the faculty.”