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RCCC, UNCC and Gaston College form partnership to benefit low-income students

Rowan-Cabarrus Community College

SALISBURY —  Academically talented low-income students who want to study biological sciences can find opportunities through a new regional partnership among UNC Charlotte, Gaston College and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.

The initiative is possible as a result of $4.5 million in funding from the National Science Foundation’s Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (S-STEM) program, which seeks to increase the number of students who complete both associate and bachelor in biological sciences.

The initiative — called the SPARC4, or STEM Persistence and Retention via Curricula, Centralization, Cohorts, and Collaboration Project — will provide 156 scholarships over five years, beginning in the fall. It is an expansion of a project at Gaston College that resulted in improved academic scores for participating students and higher percentages of that college’s students completing associate degrees.

For each year of the new initiative, 10 to 12 students at each community college will be chosen for one-year renewable scholarships, faculty and peer mentoring, and targeted advising designed to promote successful transfer to the biology or pre-biology major at UNC Charlotte. Students will be eligible for continued scholarships and academic support at UNCC.

While the initiative will work with specific students at the three institutions, knowledge gained from the partnership holds the potential for broader impact, academic leaders say.

“This partnership will accomplish much more than helping these specific students,” said Joan Lorden, UNC Charlotte provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. “The initiative will help all three partners implement and then study interventions to find out what works best to help these students, and others like them, succeed. We can then apply these proven interventions more broadly, with far-reaching impact at our institutions and elsewhere.”

The successful project at Gaston College began in 2009 and has shown increased rates of students transferring into science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors at North Carolina universities, in addition to improved academic scores and associate degree completion.

“We expect to see additional students finishing their degrees and transferring to UNC Charlotte as a result of this grant,” said Heather Woodson, associate vice president of academic affairs at Gaston College. “The impact on Gaston College and our partner institutions in this initiative will be very positive, and the effects on individual students in our community will be profound. The new partnership will allow community college transfer students to benefit from an enhanced student experience and significant financial support at both the community colleges and UNC Charlotte. We also will be able to more closely track student performance after transfer.”

The partnership is expected to expand participation in STEM fields by a more diverse population.

“We are proud to work collaboratively on this initiative. Increasing the number of students pursuing careers in STEM fields is critical to diversifying the science and technical expertise in our region,” said President Carol S. Spalding of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. “This grant will help support students who will really benefit from additional mentoring and financial resources.”

The students will be members of discipline-based learning communities at the community colleges and UNC Charlotte. They will participate in hands-on research and inquiry-based activities in STEM courses. Each partner institution will also emphasize student-centered learning by redesigning STEM courses in which students frequently struggle. With the course redesigns, the project will directly benefit more students than just the scholarship recipients.

At UNC Charlotte, the scholarship recipients will benefit academically from enrolling together in sections of required courses outside the biology major, where those majors have historically struggled. These courses will use peer mentors trained to address transfer student issues. They also will work on research projects with UNC Charlotte biological sciences faculty and present their work at professional conferences.

“Students who transfer to UNC Charlotte in the biological sciences from community colleges can find the transition difficult, and many drop out, particularly those who have not completed their associate degrees,” said Elizabeth Stearns, SPARC4 project director and UNC Charlotte sociology professor. “Academic, financial and social support can increase the graduation rate for these students, and we believe our new partnership will allow us to use that support to intervene at critical moments for these scholars at all three institutions.”

The regional partnership is expected to contribute to the nationwide conversation about the issue of what helps — or hinders — community college students as they strive for careers in STEM fields, particularly in life sciences.

Collaborators at each institution include faculty from diverse disciplines, as well as institutional leadership. At UNC Charlotte, in addition to the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, partners include the University Transfer Center, which is a resource for transfer students.

The contact person for fall 2018 scholarships for students at Rowan Cabarrus Community College is Carol Scherczinger, chairwoman of the biotechnology program.

At Gaston College, the contact is Julia P. Allen, chief development officer. At UNC Charlotte, qualified students will be invited to participate.

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