Fordham has received a $530,000 grant as part of a nationwide effort to expand the ranks of students enrolled in STEM fields.

Last year, Fordham joined the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s first Inclusive Excellence 3 Learning (IE3) Community. The goal of the initiative is to improve STEM teaching and learning for first-generation college students, transfer students, and students from underrepresented backgrounds.

When it was accepted into the inaugural cohort, the University was assigned to one of seven clusters, each of which is comprised of 15 institutions. The cluster that Fordham joined has been tasked with the narrower goal of making introductory STEM course content more inclusive. This fall, the schools in the cluster were collectively awarded $8.6 million from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and decided as a group to allocate approximately the same amount to each school.

J.D. Lewis, Ph.D., a biological sciences professor, is leading the Fordham team, along with Dean of Fordham College at Lincoln Center Laura Auricchio, Dean of Fordham College at Rose Hill Maura Mast, Associate Professor of Chemistry Robert Beer, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Patricio Meneses, and CSTEP Director Michael Molina.

Lewis said that the collaborative nature of the project is what makes it most exciting.

“So much funding is based on, ‘We’re going to be the first to do something,’” they said.

“But one of the things that’s nice about this is that we are able to move forward faster because we collectively are working together. We’re not saying, ‘Oh my goodness, you made a mistake.’ We’re saying, ‘Oh, that didn’t work, what can we do better this time?’”

At Fordham, the grant funding, which is spread over six years, will be allocated toward faculty development, student engagement, and curricular improvements.

At Fordham, Lewis said, that could take many forms. One idea might be hosting webinars or guest speakers who can talk about some of the issues related to reimagining the introductory STEM experience. Another might be setting up listening sessions between faculty and student-led pre-health profession clubs. The group will also aim to build on previous successes with mentoring and early research experiences, such as Project TRUE, the ASPIRES Scholars program, the Calder Summer Undergraduate Research Program, and Fordham’s Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program, and share those experiences with colleagues in the cluster.

When it comes to curriculum, Lewis noted that the biology department had already recently reimagined its course sequencing. In the past, Intro to Biology 1 was only offered in the fall semester, and Intro to Biology 2 was only offered in the spring semester of undergraduates’ first year; both are required courses for STEM majors and are notoriously tough courses that “weed out” those who can’t complete the course load. But that meant new students had to take Intro to Bio 1 their very first semester of college, which was problematic for students who might not have had a rigorous science background in high school. So last year, the department began offering both courses in the fall and the spring. The new schedule provided flexibility without compromising the rigor of the courses.

That’s the kind of success the department wants to build on with the help of other experts.

“It’s talking with a sociologist or a psychologist and bringing in folks who have had experience in how to ease students’ stress and anxiety around the introductory STEM sequence simply by changing how the material is presented, even if it’s the same material,” Lewis said.

Molina agreed that small changes like that can have a big effect on a student who has shown great promise academically, but who is entering college after attending a high school that did not have a full-time, fully licensed biology teacher. Through no fault of their own, that student will have a steeper learning curve when they begin college-level studies.

“Part of the challenge of keeping all students, but particularly under-represented students, engaged in STEM course work is to make sure every student is able to meet the challenge of “gateway” courses in the physical and natural sciences on their terms,” he said, adding that the flexibility also gives them the chance to learn new study habits.

“If you’re able to bridge that gap of how you study from high school to how you study in college, it makes all the difference in how successful you’ll be, and how confident you’ll be going forward.”

When it comes to the future, Molina said he’s excited to be a part of efforts to bring incoming students onto campus and into science labs as soon as possible and to make the student-professor relationship less hierarchical and more collegial. The grant will make it possible to undertake these sorts of initiatives.

“We want to create a more collegiate relationship between faculty and students, where students feel comfortable coming to faculty, and talking with them inside the classroom and outside the classroom. It’s that kind of culture that breeds success,” he said.


Patrick Verel is a news producer for Fordham Now. He can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 636-7790.