A University of Central Florida researcher who started a successful program to keep freshmen in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines is expanding the model to two other universities and adding a component to focus on transfer students.

Kimberly Schneider, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research in UCF’s College of Undergraduate Studies, will split a $1.8 million National Science Foundation grant with peers at Florida Atlantic University and Western Carolina University to expand the Learning Environment and Academic Research Network (LEARN) to those institutions.

The program addresses the national challenge of retaining a STEM workforce in the future.  The 2012 President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended targeting the first two years of university education as a critical juncture in buttressing the training of new STEM workforce in the U.S.

Studies show that close to one-third of all students entering U.S.colleges leave after one year and go on to have a less than 50 percent shot of graduating within five years.  Additionally, minority students have far lower rates of graduating with STEM degrees than white Americans.

The current LEARN program, started in 2011, gives 28 eligible first-year undergraduates  the opportunity to live together in a UCF residence hall,  work in laboratories with faculty and graduate students, take courses focused on conducting academic research and receive personalized mentoring and guidance counseling. Additionally, the students take part in academic, social and community service activities.

Jadzia Bracamonte, a junior who is pre-med, completed the LEARN program as a freshman.  She came to UCF from Tampa and didn’t know anyone when she arrived.  The program gave her the opportunity to connect with students with similar interests and helped clarify for her that she was going to study pre-med.

“It helped me establish my niche here,” she said. Through the program’s research apprentice component she worked with Bill Self, a researcher in the College of Medicine and was later introduced to another top medical researcher, Alexander Cole, and was able to spend a summer interning in his laboratory.

The 2011 class of LEARN students returned to their STEM majors in fall 2014 at a 36 percent higher rate than a control group.  The LEARN students also showed marked academic improvement with a spring 2012 GPA is 3.28 compared to the control group which was 2.79.

The additional funding for the program will enable it to expand to an additional group of students – those transferring to UCF from community colleges.

“A high percentage of underrepresented and underserved minorities in STEM fields begin their higher education careers in community colleges,” Schneider said.  “We believe this model will help those students get the support and skills needed to succeed in science-based careers,” she said.

Donna Chamely-Wiik , director of Florida Atlantic University’s Quality Enhancement Plan and Office of Undergraduate Research and Inquiry is the leader of the project for FAU and Alison Morrison-Shetlar, Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and professor of biology  is the lead for WCU.