Pomona Implements Program for Incoming Students in STEM Fields

While the Claremont Colleges have an abundance of social and cultural mentor groups, the same cannot be said for academic mentor programs. This summer however, Pomona College brought 10 incoming first-years from backgrounds that are underrepresented in the sciences to campus, giving them experience working in a lab before they began their first year. This High Achievement Program (HAP) acts like an academic mentor program, with support provided for the participants throughout the school year, as well as during the summer program. This special initiative was part of the $3.6 million Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grant given to the Claremont Colleges last year. 

The idea of mentor-based academic support for students is an area that the social and cultural mentor groups see as particularly necessary. Maria Torres, Dean of Students for Chicano/Latino Student Affairs (CLSA), spoke about the lack of support for students looking to study the sciences. 

“So many of our students are now saying they’re science majors,” Torres said. “I think we need to look very closely at science majors, and make sure for those students who say they’re into neuroscience, for example, that we can support them and that they graduate as neuroscience majors.”

“It’s something we’ve been talking about for the past 15-20 years in the sciences, always wondering about how we can increase the persistence of underrepresented students in the sciences,” Pomona professor Cynthia Selassie, who was in charge of running HAP, said of the motivations in creating such a program.  “So when we applied [for the grant], we decided we’re going to put some focus on this matter.”

“We did a lot of research on the whole matter to find out exactly what it is we should do. The literature shows that underrepresented students who have participated in research tend to persist in the sciences,” she said.

But the students did not only do research. For the month of July, they came to the Pomona campus to work in labs as part of the Summer Undergraduate Research Program and take two courses: mathematics, taught by Professor Ami Radunskaya, and writing, taught by Professor Anthony Shay. The math course focused on precalculus and problem solving, while the writing class was a pre-ID1 course, with required essays and discussion. 

After classes in the morning, the 10 students would work in labs filled with upperclassmen, each assigned to one faculty research mentor.

“I had one of the students in my lab,” Selassie said. “They were very well received, even by the upperclassmen who were in the labs. They really treated them well, and it was a really positive experience for everybody.”

“They’ve established relationships with the students in the labs, and that was one of the points of getting them in there,” she said. “Most of the labs have juniors and seniors, so if you have problems with classes, especially science courses, those other students have taken those courses and can help you. So there’s a little group around you, and you have a support system.”

Selassie said they also kept the students occupied with non-academic activities outside of classes and time in the lab, including hiking Mount Baldy, walking through downtown Los Angeles, and eating dinner with Pomona’s Dean Miriam Feldblum every Tuesday. 

An important aspect of the HHMI grant will be looking at quantitative measurements of the success of the program, something that Selassie says is in progress right now. “[The students] were interviewed when they got here by an expert from CGU, Dr. David Drew, who has done a lot studying underrepresented students in the STEM [science, technology, math, and engineering] fields and seeing what can be done to increase their persistence. He’ll be monitoring them through the whole year to see if the program is working.”

So far, all signs seem to be positive, according to Professor Clarissa Cheney, the program director of the overall HHMI grant for Pomona. 

“I think it’s been very successful, from what we’ve seen,” she said. “One very small indication that we have so far is we have a special small section of BIO40 with required mentor sessions and help with problems. Almost all of the HAP students are in that section. And on the first exam, that section did quite well. It’s all very promising.” 

So far, the students’ own experiences seems to agree with that early assessment. Estela Sanchez PO ’17 participated in research to locate a gene that inhibits neuron regeneration in a certain type of fly.

“It was really nice getting to meet other Pomona students,” Sanchez said. “It was also nice to know professors on a personal level, not just an academic level. The program helps you build a type of resilience that you sometimes need to get through your science courses.”

Bianca Rodriguez PO ’17, who worked in a developmental genetics lab, said the program confirmed her interest in a career in scientific research. 

“It was something I thought I wanted to do. And then I actually experienced it a little bit more, and I realized it was something I could do for the rest of my life,” Rodriguez said.

Cheney also hopes that professors from the program can be a source of help and support throughout the year. 

“The research mentors are also the academic advisors for the HAP students, so we have some continuity and the students already know us,” she said.

Ultimately, looking at how successful the program is will be important for its continued and expanded existence. The HHMI grant only funds the program for 10 students for four years. Beyond that, Selassie and Cheney hope the college will step in. 

“It’s a pilot program, so we’re testing to find out if this approach is helpful for these students. If it is, we’re hoping that the college will pick it up and perhaps expand it,” Cheney said. “Right now, from HHMI, it’s only 10 students per summer, and we have more than 10 students interested in science who came from high schools that weren’t strong in science. We really think we’re going to help these students succeed from the start in science courses here.”

However, she acknowledges the expensive nature of the program. 

“It’s fairly expensive because of all the staff involved. That’s one big expense. Not only do we have 10 research mentors, but the math instructor, the writing instructor, mentors for both courses and a special RA. So it’s pretty intensive,” Cheney said. “But to do it right, we had to do it that way. So hopefully we’ll see if this is beneficial, and we’re hoping the college will step up and fund it.”

Elika Nassirina contributed reporting.

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