Grambling program helps students conquer math; VP native is math, science scholar

GRAMBLING - Math can be a stumbling block for many college students, keeping them out of high-demand fields, such as engineering and health care.

When it comes to minority students, the situation is even more challenging. Fewer minority students graduate in science and engineering, a factor that impacts not only these students but Louisiana’s workforce and economic prospects, and Grambling State University aims to do something about it.

According to the most recent figures from the National Science Foundation, African American students earned only 8.4 percent of the bachelor’s degrees in science and engineering in 2004. In Louisiana, where almost one-third of the population is African American, the group represents only about 18 percent of science and engineering graduates.

Grambling’s Center for Mathematical Achievement in Science and Technology (CMAST) is helping students improve their math skills and encouraging more students to graduate in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The program, in its third year, is holding math academies for 50 incoming college freshmen and sophomores this summer.

CMAST is funded by a $2.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The center’s revamped math courses, freshman and sophomore mathematics academies, research internships and high school teacher workshops have increased the number of students passing introductory math classes by 20 percent since the program started in 2006.

But the real benefit is in opening students’ eyes to the wonders of math and science and the opportunities that strong math skills present, according to Grambling President Horace Judson, a chemist.

“The CMAST program allows us to find new ways to help our students embrace and enliven math concepts. Now is the time to invest in the rigorous disciplines of math and science because these disciplines will provide tremendous opportunities for our African American students,” Judson said.

Grambling CMAST Scholar Heather Smith is a junior majoring in computer science, with a minor in mathematics. The 19-year-old Ville Platte native said the three-hour drilling sessions in the freshman and sophomore mathematics academies helped her realize that she is good at math, a factor critical to her success in her studies and career.

“Through repetition, I sharpened my skills. I already had a basic foundation from high school. But there it was procedure, procedure, procedure. This program went further in showing how math applies to real life,” said Smith, who hopes to try her hand at a career in database management or maybe in artificial intelligence.

“The program helped me and my peers to see most people struggle with math. They also are comforted in learning the rate of understanding differs from person to person,” she said. “You learn not to be afraid to ask questions - be a determined student, and you can get the job done.”

Grambling CMAST Director RaShon Carruthers said increasing students’ comfort level with math concepts is a primary objective of the program. Besides newly-redesigned lecture courses, the program involves students in practice sessions where they apply what they have learned using real-world problems.

“In lectures, they’re learning and taking notes, but we make it more hands-on. It puts them in a comfort zone, where they can feel comfortable going to the board. They get their confidence up and realize, ‘I can do this,’” Carruthers said.

To qualify for the program, students must have declared their interest in earning a degree in biology, chemistry, physics, drafting and design technology, electronic engineering technology, mathematics or computer science. She and her colleagues recruit high school seniors in the region and throughout the nation to apply to the CMAST pre-freshman academy. She also sifts through admissions forms so she can contact eligible students who have already enrolled.

Those who accept the challenge are rewarded in multiple ways. Besides a better grounding in math, students who participate in the two-week academy receive a $400 stipend at the end of the two week session and a $500 textbook award to use for the fall and spring semester. They continue with the program throughout their freshman and sophomore years, when they are placed in research internships with professors.

“The sophomore year is when they get into research. It gives them an opportunity to grasp what they want to do when they get out of college,” Carruthers said.

The program is a big hit with students and parents alike.

“A lot of universities don’t have this. Parents love it. It gets them acclimated to college life. Because while they are in the pre-freshman academy, they are getting advised, getting classes taken care of, lining up their financial aid, taking care of housing and any thing else they need for the fall semester,” Carruthers said.

“When they enter in the fall, they have everything taken care of. It gives them a leg up. Some students get discouraged from being freshman students and going through that process, doing it on their own. This program helps give them support in transition from high school to college.”

The program also sponsors workshops for high school math and science teachers. Participants earn a $700 stipend and earn three graduate credit hours. This summer CMAST focused on chemistry teachers.

“What they learn here, they will take to their classrooms to help prepare those high school students majoring in a STEM field. That means high school students will be even better prepared and have a sense of confidence when they have that first lecture and lab class,” Carruthers said.

In addition to increasing the number of students graduating in science and engineering fields, the program also aims to increase the percent of these graduates who enroll in master’s, doctoral or professional degree programs from a baseline of five percent in 2005 to more than 15 percent by 2010.

It is also designed to increase the number and quality of Louisiana’s minority graduates, which is particularly important as the state strives to increase its number of newly-degreed graduates in high-demand areas.

The University of Louisiana System Board, presidents and eight universities, of which Grambling is a part, have pledged to produce an additional 2,400 new graduates per year by 2012 in engineering, health care, business and education.

Governor Bobby Jindal and his Labor Secretary Tim Barfield have made strengthening Louisiana’s work force a top priority.

“One of the goals of our redesign of the workforce development system in Louisiana is to connect the dots between market demand for employees with particular skills and the education and training institutions that can turn out graduates with those skills,” Barfield said. “Once we can draw a straight line between them, we will have overcome one of the largest obstacles to economic development in our state. The eight campuses of the University of Louisiana System are an important component of that solution.”

For more information about Grambling’s CMAST program, visit http://www.gram.edu/.

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