NSF Supports Partnership to Increase Life Sciences Graduates
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NSF Supports Partnership to Increase Life Sciences Graduates

NSF Supports Partnership of Gaston College, UNC Charlotte, Rowan-Cabarrus Community College to Increase Life Sciences Graduates

Academically talented, low-income students who want to study biological sciences can find life-changing Sparc4 logoopportunities through a new regional partnership with Gaston College, UNC Charlotte, and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.

The new initiative, called the SPARC4 or STEM Persistence and Retention via Curricula,   Centralization, Cohorts, and Collaboration Project, will receive $4.5 million in funding from the National Science Foundation’s Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (S-STEM) program.

The three regional partners seek to increase the number of students who complete both Associate of Science and Bachelor of Science degrees in the biological sciences — 156 scholarships will be awarded over five years beginning in fall 2018.

For each year of the new initiative, 10 to 12 students at each community college will be chosen for one-year renewable scholarships, faculty and peer mentoring, and targeted advising designed to promote successful transfer to the biology or pre-biology major at UNC Charlotte in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences. Students will be eligible for continued scholarships and academic support when they transfer to UNC Charlotte.

While the initiative will work with specific students at the three institutions, knowledge gained from the partnership holds the potential for broader impact across North Carolina and the nation, academic leaders say. This anticipated impact particularly relates to upward mobility, which can be linked to educational attainment levels.

Gaston College President Dr. Patricia Skinner is elated to be working so closely with other colleges to promote the completion of STEM degrees in the region. “We expect to see additional students finishing their degrees and transferring to UNC Charlotte as a result of this grant. The impact on Gaston College and our partner institutions in this initiative will be very positive; however, the effects on individual students in our community will be profound,” said Dr. Skinner.

Sparc3 Team with Dr. Skinner

Dr. Heather Woodson, Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the Kimbrell Campus; Ashley Hagler, SPARC3 Director; Luke Upchurch, Director of Grants and Special Projects; Dr. Patricia Skinner, President of Gaston College; and Dr. Melissa Armstrong, Science and Mathematics Chairperson for Gaston College. The SPARC4 initiative is an expansion and scale-up of the successful SPARC3 project at Gaston College, an on-going effort led by this team.

SPARC4 is an expansion and scale-up of the successful SPARC3 project at Gaston College, an on-going effort led by Ashley Hagler, SPARC3 Director; Dr. Melissa Armstrong, Science and Mathematics Chairperson; and Dr. Heather Woodson, Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs. Initial SPARC3 efforts resulted in improved academic scores for the participating students and higher percentages of students completing their associate degrees when compared to the College’s general population. The rate of students transferring into STEM majors at North Carolina universities also increased as a result of the efforts at Gaston College. The new SPARC4 initiative will draw from the pioneering work of the SPARC3 program leaders at Gaston College.

Due to the success of the SPARC3 program, the College was recognized in 2016 by the Community College Futures Assembly as the Bellwether Award Winner for Instructional Programs and Services. This annual national award recognizes outstanding and innovative programs successfully leading the nation’s community colleges into the future. The program has also received certification from the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Science Education, one of only two community college programs in the United States to have done so.

students working in science lab

Chelsey King and Janna Stover, former SPARC3 scholars at Gaston College, do nitrification rate testing of wastewater as Annette McMurray from Gaston County Wastewater Management observes their work. In May, Chelsey will graduate from UNC Chapel Hill with a degree in biology and Janna from UNC Charlotte with a degree in Math.

Gaston College SPARC3 students speak highly of the program. Chelsey King, a former SPARC3 student now enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says, “The SPARC3 program has had a tremendous impact on my future. Because of the program, I will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree this spring. The SPARC3 program helped me to develop the tools and confidence I needed to take on the rigorous university coursework, and I owe a great deal of my success to the program.”

She added, “Because of the support provided through advising, mentoring, cohort, and research opportunities, I believe the SPARC3 program is the best possible way to prepare a STEM student to transfer to a university.” Chelsey will graduate in May 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in biology.

Former SPARC3 scholar Madison Staves, also enrolled at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, states, “The SPARC3 program changed the course of my life forever. I was given more than just an education. I was given an academic family who supported me through the victories and the challenges. I developed a passion to be curious and question things around me. I am forever grateful to have graduated with the support from this program.” Madison will graduate from the university in December 2018 with a degree in biology.

“We are excited to expand the SPARC3 project, which began in 2009 at Gaston College, by partnering with Rowan-Cabarrus Community College and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte,” said Dr. Woodson. “The new partnership will allow community college transfer students to benefit from an enhanced student experience and significant financial support at both the community college and UNC Charlotte. The expansion of the SPARC3 project will also provide Gaston College transfer students with additional support during their transition from the community college to the university and will allow community colleges to better track student performance after transfer.”

The SPARC4 collaborative effort is expected to expand participation in STEM fields by women, minorities, and other diverse populations, and to contribute to the national conversation about what works in STEM education.

The partners at each institution include faculty from diverse disciplines, as well as institutional leadership. To apply for fall 2018 scholarships at Gaston College, contact Julia Allen, Chief Development Officer at 704-922-6511 or Allen.Julia@gaston.edu or sparc3@gaston.edu.

The contact person for fall 2018 scholarships for students at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College is Biotechnology Program Chair Dr. Carol Scherczinger.

At UNC Charlotte, in addition to the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, partners include the University Transfer Center, which is a resource for transfer students. Each year, UNC Charlotte welcomes more community college transfers than any other North Carolina college or university.


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