Area Schools Bridge Science Needs

March 25, 2002
| By Katy Rent |
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GRAND RAPIDS — Recently The Van Andel Research Institute (VARI), Grand Valley State University, Grand Rapids Community College and Davenport University’s Grand Rapids Area Pre-College Engineering Program (GRAPCEP) kicked off a new alliance to prevent a potential shortage of science and engineering professionals nationwide.

Through a three-year $500,000 Bridges to the Baccalaureate grant from the National Institute of Health and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the four partners will aid minority students interested in biomedical careers in their transition from GRCC to GVSU.

The grant will fund up to 20 students annually and is designed to mentor community college minority science students through the completion of the baccalaureate degree and ultimately into biomedical careers. The consortium between community college, four-year institution and biomedical research facility will offer a seamless support of students across the full continuum of education and research.

“We may face a severe shortage of professionals in science and engineering in the near future,” said GVSU assistant professor of biology Mark Staves. “Should this occur we cannot afford to leave substantial sections of our nation’s intellectual resource pool untapped.”

The 2000 U.S. Census Bureau estimates revealed that women and minorities comprise 51.1 percent and 28.6 percent of the population, respectively, of which only six percent are scientists and engineers. Studies also show that minority students are less likely to enroll in a four-year program than other students and are even less likely to finish their programs.

According to VARI special program investigator Dr. James Resau, many of the chronic diseases that affect the U.S. population such as cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease are over-represented in minorities.

“It would be extremely helpful to have trained health professionals from the same populations working on research to develop cures. Currently we are not taking advantage of the minority population’s perspectives and diverse skill sets,” he said.

Targeting African American, Hispanic, Pacific Islanders and Native American high school students, the program offers participants one-on-one mentoring, research assistantships and professional development.

Each organization will play its part from start to finish, assisting in a seamless transition through all programs. Doug Kindschi, dean of the science and math division at GVSU, explained that GRAPCEP and GVSU’s math and science department will be involved in the recruiting process and getting high school students interested and involved in the program.

GRAPCEP has a strong relationship with Grand Rapids Public Schools and looks to incorporate that foundation into the program, said Sandra Burmeister, executive director of GRAPCEP. “We are focusing the program throughout the entire district but especially focusing on the four main high schools: Union, Central, Creston and Ottawa Hills,” she said.

From there, upon acceptance and enrollment in the baccalaureate program at GRCC, students will be aided and mentored by GRCC staff members and those involved in the program. Mentors will assist in course planning, requirements and making sure the student has every opportunity in research projects.

“From day one, when the students are accepted into the program, students will have the opportunity to serve as research assistants at GRCC, GVSU and VARI. The positions are funded through the grant and will provide the scholars’ stipends,” Kindschi said.

While some skeptics may question making a definite career choice as early as high school, Burmeister has an answer. “I see how many people could see high school as being very early to choose a career. We are also not making them choose one specific field. We do an assessment in middle school to see who is interested in math and science and then do another one to see if they are still interested in high school,” she said.

“We allow the students to tour numerous plants, do some job shadowing, and then an internship. This way they are able to try out multiple fields within the math and science arena and see which specific area interests them most.”

Upon completion of their two-year degree with GRCC, students can transfer to GVSU health science or biomedical degree programs. GVSU will then take over and assure a seamless transition to the four-year university.

Each organization will help identify potential candidates prior to high school graduation. An advisory board will then choose from the eligible candidates.

“Another reason this program is so important is because it creates another opportunity for women and minorities, and we find that there are many students in the GRPS that need financial support when looking into college, and also need a place that is close to home,” said Burmeister.

The recent kick-off event was held to introduce teachers, guidance counselors and prospective scholars to the program. Representatives from each institution discussed the program, personal experiences and the career paths of current and former students. A poster session followed featuring postdoctoral fellows, student interns and technologists.

A competitive program, students who complete applications will be considered for interviews to determine their commitment to a career in biomedical science. They will also be evaluated on ACT scores, grades and recommendations. Following the completion of their baccalaureate degree, students have a variety of career options from which to chose, including work as laboratory biologists, chemists, physicists, and clinical or computer scientists.

“This program is a real force to provide students with encouragement and motivation,” said Carolyn Collins-Bondon, GRCC assistant dean of arts and sciences.

“Students are capable of doing so much more than they are actually challenged to do,” Burmeister said. “Through the Bridges to Baccalaureate program we are able to allow them to challenge themselves, therefore furthering their careers in the future.”

As the program is only in its first stages, further employment has not been discussed, but Kindschi did not rule out the option. “In the future we may set up a group of businesses, or an advisory board to give advice and to place graduates. The philosophy behind this program is not just to give money but to give jobs, which are often more important and will bring the money later,” he said. “I think it will be the businesses in the area and across the country that will benefit from the talented people graduating from this program.”

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