$1 million NSF grant to support STEM students from low-income backgrounds

A grant from the National Science Foundation will advance Yakima Valley College’s efforts to diversify the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce by providing money for scholarships and other academic supports to students.

Totaling $995,886 over the next six years, the grant contributes to the growing local, state and national need for well-educated STEM professionals by supporting the retention and graduation of high-achieving, low-income students with demonstrated financial need at Yakima Valley College.

YVC Biology Instructor Matthew Loeser, principal investigator for the grant, said the funding provides a significant opportunity to help individuals historically underrepresented in STEM fields enter careers that are in high-demand.

“We need fresh, new minds from our Valley to tackle the wickedly complex problems of our world. So this project improves the education of future STEM workers and increases support for low-income students,” stated Loeser. “Earning credits at YVC before transferring to a university is a way to build a foundation of knowledge, strengthen your college academic skills and save some money.”

Funding will provide scholarships for at least 60 students who are pursuing associate degrees in several STEM disciplines at YVC. Once selected, students will participate in the college’s New Scientist Training-2 (NeST-2) program and engage in a suite of discipline-specific academic support services, receive one-on-one advising, take part in hands-on research and participate in cohort-building enrichment activities.

“With this grant, we can build on YVC’s success in supporting students from low-income backgrounds or who are the first in their family to attend college as they pursue their desire to enter a STEM profession,” said Cristy Rasmussen, YVC STEM director.

The project will expand upon YVC’s original NeST program by increasing the number of scholars, focusing on their success transferring and pursuing further education, and adapting techniques from university-based models for STEM education. The program also looks to produce important insights for other community colleges in their efforts to support STEM student success and diversify the nation’s STEM workforce.

Loeser said the new funding will help continue the YVC’s longstanding work to prepare students for STEM careers and research. In 2016, the school received a $448,000 NSF grant to establish its original NeST program, which provided scholarships, mentorship and hands-on research opportunities to 52 low-income and first-generation students. In 2021, YVC received $496,694 from the NSF Hispanic-Serving Institution program to support its STEM Pathways program and efforts to increase the percentage of Hispanic and low-income students participating in STEM courses.

“At YVC, we continue to grow the opportunities for students passionate about STEM,” said Vanessa Tucker, a member of the college’s STEM support team.

Since 2012, more than 250 YVC students have participated in summer research opportunities through YVC. In addition, YVC has funded staff positions to support STEM students’ academic success and grown participation in the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) Community College Program, which works to increase the number of community college students who successfully transfer to four-year institutions and earn bachelor’s degrees in STEM majors.

“Through these efforts, we have seen benefits such as improved student engagement and learning, more equitable access to research experiences, and improved retention and completion — especially for underrepresented students,” Loeser said.

He, along with YVC Agriculture Instructor Holly Ferguson and Chemistry Instructor Suki Smaglik, also are engaged in a Washington state consortium focused on bringing undergraduate research opportunities to more students funded by the NSF’s Improving Undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education Program.

By studying the effectiveness of academic and career support with simultaneous events that reinforce belongingness, YVC’s NeST-2 program will identify strategies that offer a high return on investment.

“Community colleges like Yakima Valley College have a crucial role to play in preparing students for a future in STEM,” Loeser said. “Establishing evidence-based best practices can spur replication of similar programs across the community college system of Washington state and the country.”

Press Release Contacts:
Dustin Wunderlich / 509.574.6870 / dwunderlich@yvcc.edu
Stefanie Menard / 509.574.4646 / smenard@yvcc.edu