October 13, 2022
A new mentoring program is helping Mars Hill University students succeed in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) courses. The Faculty-Student STEM Mentoring Program is funded through North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities (NCICU) by a three-year grant from the North Carolina GlaxoSmithKline Foundation. The goal of the program is to improve student retention and graduation rates among first generation college students, women, and students of color majoring in STEM subjects.
Laura Steil, an associate professor of mathematics and chair of the mathematics and computer science department, and Michelle Gilley, professor of biology, are heading Mars Hill’s team. They already are working with a dozen students and have room in the program for several more.
Steil said the program is focused on three main objectives: help students succeed in “gateway” courses, provide one-on-one mentoring, and start a STEM Club to provide opportunities for students to interact with math and science outside the classroom.
The gateway courses include such courses as calculus, general chemistry, and discrete math—courses that generally are taken during the students’ freshman and sophomore years, early in their STEM careers.
“These are classes we’ve identified that STEM majors have, in the past, struggled with,” said Gilley. “If we can get in and help them early, we’re hoping to keep them engaged and on-track to succeed not only here at MHU but also in their careers.”
J.T. Jackson is a sophomore computer science major from Kernersville, North Carolina, and one of the students participating in the mentoring program. “It’s definitely an extra resource to reach out to if I have a STEM question,” he said. “The program overall is good for getting connected with other people who are already in the STEM fields like other computer scientists but also other scientists like biologists and chemists.”
The students meet monthly with the faculty leaders and every other week with one or more of three peer mentors. Jonathan Angeles-Sanchez, a senior computer science major from Hendersonville, North Carolina, is one of them.
“I have been able to meet students from similar backgrounds,” he said. “This is a major highlight because I have become an example to those students who are just starting their journey in their fields. I have gone through the same courses and struggles, which allows me to inspire them.”
The other mentiros are Jordan Schmucker, a senior math major from Myakka City, Florida; and Elida Taylor, a junior biology major from Martinez, Georgia. All three have been successful in the gateway courses and provide tutoring, accountability check-ins, and other assistance to help the students in the program navigate the challenges unique to STEM education.
“In addition to them being successful in their classes, I like the idea of opening students’ eyes to other things beyond the classroom,” said Steil. “I’d like to see a big community of STEM working together, for the STEM Club to live on with students taking leadership roles, and I’d like them to say, ‘Oh, I can use this science and math in these various aspects and there is a fun element to this.’”
Early STEM Club meetings have included math puzzles and work with microscopes. She said the club also will focus on professional and career development with a goal of taking interested students to present at conferences.
They’ll also get a chance to interact with their peers from other schools in the region. Later in October the Mars Hill group will host STEM teams from Lenoir-Rhyne University, UNC Asheville, and Western Carolina University for competitions that will include a STEM Jeopardy-style game and an escape room treasure hunt.
“I think we’re very fortunate to receive this grant because it provides an opportunity for Mars Hill University to become a hub within Western North Carolina for STEM-related fields,” said Gilley. “I would love to see more young people of color and girls getting excited about STEM so they’re considering it as a career path before they even go to college.” She envisions mentoring programs with Mars Hill Elementary School, Madison Middle School, and other schools in Madison County and throughout Western North Carolina.
The three-year grant from the North Carolina GlaxoSmithKline Foundation totals $240,000 spread among the 12 participating schools. Mars Hill will receive $8,300 during each of the program’s three years.
“NCICU’s 36 institutions are continuing to increase and expand offerings in STEM programs,” NCICU President Hope Williams said. “The smaller class sizes at private institutions can provide the additional support and mentoring to help students from underrepresented populations to thrive.”