Fort Lewis College will be swimming in the big leagues with its share of a new five-year $94-million grant from the National Science Foundation intended to prepare students for careers in the sciences after graduation.
The grant will be split among four Science and Technology Centers. Fort Lewis, which will see more than $1 million as its share, is paired with the University of Colorado, Florida International University, and the Universities of California Los Angeles, Irvine and Berkeley. The ultimate goal is to prepare undergraduate students to make the move to graduate school or the workforce, particularly first generation and underrepresented minority students.
“Fort Lewis is developing a national reputation for training Native American students,” said professor Ryan Haaland, chairman of the Department of Physics and Engineering at the college. “We’re known for having a rigorous but success-oriented program. We were approached by CU directly, because they said if you’re going to create diversity in a discipline, you need to go to a place where there’s tons of it.”
At FLC, about 33 percent of the student body is Native American/Alaska Native and another 11 percent is Hispanic. The program will also focus on women and first-generation college students.
“Engineering is a very white male world,” Haaland said. “We’re trying to stir up our diversity pool.”
The team’s work will focus on developing cutting-edge, real-time imaging science at the nanoscale level.
“Energy storage is an important part of our future, because we need batteries to store alternative energy,” Haaland said, giving an idea of the kind of research that will be pursued through the grant. “We want to understand the mechanism better, see how it can be improved, observe the degradation over time and better understand the physics and the materials.”
Part of the grant will go to summer opportunities to expand students’ comfort levels with cities and large research institutions. A main goal is exposure to a wider world in their discipline. Haaland gave an example that students might spend the summer after their freshman year working with a professor on research locally and spend a month after their sophomore year traveling to a partner university in the grant with an FLC professor and, after their junior year, spending a summer at a partner university on their own.
“At that point, they will have been exposed to what it takes to be a graduate student at the best institutions on the planet,” he said.
Without this exposure, he thinks FLC is almost setting students up to fail, he said.
“We do a good job at preparing our students on the science, physics and engineering side, but we’re less good at preparing them socially and culturally to transition to cities and big universities,” he said. “This will provide pathways that have a mentoring component at all different stages of their education.”
The grant, two years in the making, has the possibility of repeating for another five years if the program proves successful, Haaland said, and its work will extend into the community.
“We’re involving our Department of Teacher Education in this to do K-12 outreach,” he said. “We want to build a diverse workforce in this area starting from the ground up.”