The Wisconsin Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation is helping to change the landscape of the STEM fields
By Jasmine Sola
Even at 6:30 a.m. on a weekday, Bascom Hill is filled with students making their way up and down that legendary, dreaded incline. Add a few hours, and most students would be trudging to class. However, the early crowd is simply out for a morning run.
One of those runners is UW-Madison senior Cory Jackson and his days are so busy that he rightly could take the easy way out and catch a few more hours of sleep. He has class, work, and duties as a member of the Air Force ROTC on campus. After all of that, he finally starts his homework. He goes to bed at, “let’s say midnight,” he says, laughing.
Jackson not only is a member of ROTC, which requires three days of early morning training each week, but he also is an engineering mechanics and astronautics major. He plans to work in the Air Force after graduation and hopes to eventually work for NASA and attend graduate school.
Jackson, who was born and raised in Milwaukee, also is a first-generation college student—and that made handling the logistics associated with college much more difficult. “I had to figure it out on my own, what to do, where to go, majors,” Jackson says. “The hardest thing was thinking about how to pay for college and where I could afford to go.”
In the summer before his senior year of high school, Jackson participated in the Engineering Summer Program (ESP) at UW-Madison, which immerses rising high school juniors and seniors in college-level math and science classes, while exposing them to potential career paths through industry tours and lectures. The program helped him make decisions about college. “I loved it. I decided I wanted to come to Madison after I graduated high school,” Jackson says. “At first, I was on the fence about engineering, but after that program I was definitely on board for engineering.”
His transition into college, however, was not easy. He struggled with the large class sizes and communicating with professors. “It was a culture shock,” Jackson says, about coming from a predominately black high school.
An effort in the College of Engineering aims to combat many such issues that first-generation minority students like Jackson face. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the Wisconsin Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation (WiscAMP) at UW-Madison fosters efforts to increase the diversity of undergraduate students and provide support for groups that are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, fields. WiscAMP brings together universities from across Wisconsin, including all of the UW System schools, as well as four private colleges, to ensure that underrepresented students pursuing STEM at any of the institutions receive the support they need to succeed in college.
Each university must create a program that plays on its strengths, stresses WiscAMP Executive Director Gail Coover. The alliance also enables certain institutions to collaborate, particularly if schools can share resources.
The goal of WiscAMP is impressive: to collectively double the number of underrepresented minority students who graduate with a bachelor’s degree in the STEM fields within five years.
Between 2008 and 2013, WiscAMP accomplished this feat. By 2013, 341 underrepresented minority students graduated with a bachelor’s degree in the STEM fields at partner institutions, compared to 169 students in 2008. The initiative recently received a funding renewal and plans to redouble its efforts. “We are very optimistic and excited about this next phase,” Coover says.
According to Coover, WiscAMP has been successful by leveraging programs that are already working and supporting institutional transformation to broaden participation in STEM. “For example, many institutions have programs to support student engagement in research during their junior and senior years. WiscAMP programs at many campuses expanded these successful efforts so that students can participate in research in their freshman and sophomore years,” Coover says. “Early research experiences help students develop a deeper understanding of their science or engineering discipline and connect with STEM faculty members.”
Since 2005, WiscAMP has supported more than 80 programs that foster a research or faculty mentoring component. Moving forward, however, is not just simply about the numbers. “The effort to double reflects an institutional alliance strategy of transforming the institutions,” Coover says. “We want institutions to change how they approach support, in places such as STEM disciplines, so that all students can succeed.”
Jackson is one of those students. In his sophomore year, he participated in WiscAMP Excel, a summer program offered by WiscAMP. Any minority STEM student enrolled at a WiscAMP four-year institution or planning to transfer to a WiscAMP school can participate. The program is an eight-week immersive experience in STEM, complete with intensive advising and career guidance.
In particular, the program targets students who, after completing their freshman year, find their grade-point average is not as high as they would like. WiscAMP helps them rediscover why are they committed to the STEM fields, connect with faculty and resources, meet new people with similar passions, and receive any extra support they need. “It helped me a lot,” Jackson says, about WiscAMP Excel. “I had no idea if I wanted to go to grad school. WiscAMP really made me consider grad school and helped me understand the process. Now I want to attend grad school.”
And after attending Excel himself, Jackson spent the following summer as a math tutor at WiscAMP Excel.
WiscAMP Excel is yet another example of WiscAMP’s pattern of success. According to Coover, approximately 77 percent of WiscAMP Excel participants—most of whom are engineering majors—kept their STEM majors or have graduated with a degree in STEM.
The power of WiscAMP, however, extends far beyond a summer program. In fact, it has a much more personal aspect. Jackson says Coover has been a mentor to him and helped him earn funding for a conference he hoped to attend. He says he is extremely grateful for both WiscAMP and the College of Engineering Diversity Affairs Office (DAO). “The DAO and WiscAMP have been really helpful for first-generation minority students,” Jackson says. “Without them I probably wouldn’t be as far as I am now. The staff is very helpful and influential. I am very thankful I met them.”
Coover sees the work WiscAMP does as important on a national level. For her, it is all about equity and ensuring that campuses provide full support and access to all eligible students, as well as an experience that enables every student to take advantage of the resources there. “Our domestic population is changing rapidly. Wisconsin, which is still a majority white state, is rapidly becoming more diverse and that is true across the board,” Coover says. “We need to be sure that all of our academic programming at our campuses meets this need and know that not every student is coming with the same experiences as in the past.”