Corporations, NSF Team Up to Improve STEM Retention Rates

A helping hand. Acting NSF Director Cora Marrett talks with computer science major Cassandra Martin at a Graduate 10K+ event.

Sandy Schaeffer for the National Science Foundation

A new program to train more U.S. college students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields is hardly a novelty. And nobody would be surprised to learn that the National Science Foundation (NSF) is involved.

But heads still turned last week when NSF held a glitzy Washington, D.C., press event to announce $10 million in grants to nine university-based projects designed to lower dropout rates among minorities, women, and low-income students in computer science and engineering. The twist is that the "Graduate 10K+" initiative is being funded not by taxpayers but by two high-tech companies: Intel and GE.

The new effort is part of a broader push by the Obama administration for the private sector to supplement federal activities on many fronts. Specifically, it's an outgrowth of a now-defunct task force created by President Barack Obama in 2011 to improve U.S. competitiveness. (The Graduate 10K+ name is a nod to the president's goal of producing 1 million more STEM graduates by 2020.)

The group of corporate, labor, and academic bigwigs who served on the president's so-called jobs council agreed that lower attrition rates among STEM majors was a key impediment to producing enough graduates with high-tech skills. However, Intel CEO Paul Otellini was able to persuade only one of his peers, GE's Jeff Immelt, who chaired the council, to chip in. So the resulting pot falls far short of the $100 million the CEOs were expected to pony up.

Setting up this unique partnership was also a heavy lift. Tiffany Sargent, an industrial engineer and Intel lifer who had recently spent 2 years at NSF in a mid-career fellowship program, was given the assignment because of her familiarity with the agency. After brainstorming with her NSF counterpart in the education directorate, Barbara Olds, the pair decided that the best approach would be to piggyback on an existing $25-million-a-year NSF program to expand the undergraduate STEM talent pool. NSF put out a fast-track solicitation last fall for Graduate 10K+ and attracted 57 proposals, from which the nine winners were chosen.

The new program also had to scale a mountain of federal red tape. The issues included ensuring that the gift—$5 million from each company and $50,000 from New York investment banker Mark Gallogly—went for its intended purpose, creating a template for handling future gifts, and defining the proper supporting role for the companies in a program that NSF will manage. "It's not just the money, although we are deeply appreciative of that," says Kelvin Droegemeier, vice chair of NSF's oversight body, the National Science Board, during the kick-off event at The Newseum, which offers a panoramic view of the U.S. Capitol. "This is also a new programmatic structure, a way of increasing the country's investment in the next generation of computer scientists and engineers."

The money, up to $1.6 million over 5 years, will give grantees a chance to test a variety of strategies designed to help students overcome obstacles to academic success, especially in the first year. "We wouldn't have been able to run the program without this grant," says Eve Riskin, an electrical engineer and associate dean at the University of Washington, which is teaming with Washington State University to provide new students with an extra year of math and other basic courses before they plunge into the prescribed curriculum. The two universities have borrowed a successful formula developed at the University of Colorado, Boulder, she says. Success will require "working with one student at a time," she says, and the NSF grant will allow for a full-time coordinator on each campus.

Faculty at California State University, Monterey Bay (CSU-MB), had already teamed up with a local 2-year school, Hartnell College, on a program helping students make the transition to a bachelor's degree in computer science, says CSU's Sathya Narayanan, another grantee. "But the NSF grant gives us what we need to do it right," he says.

The project will also reach into local high schools to build awareness of the field. "Part of the problem of attracting students into computer science is that they have no experience with computational thinking and abstraction," says Narayanan. "Unless physics or chemistry or biology, most of them have never taken a real computer science course."

Cassandra Martin, a junior computer science major at CSU-MB, says she had never considered going into the field until Hartnell's Joe Welch convinced her that she could be successful. Now Martin, whose family came from Mexico, is planning to get a Ph.D.

"I'm the first one to go to college, and I'm enjoying school so much that I want to see how far I can go," she says. Most of her education has been financed by other NSF-run programs, she says, and whenever she visits her high school she encourages other Latinas to follow in her footsteps.

Despite the prominent launch, the Graduate 10K+ program faces an uncertain future. The president's 2014 budget requests a small increase for a cluster of undergraduate programs that includes the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program, and NSF officials say they hope to find money for a second round of awards. But any growth in federal funding may be difficult in the current tight budget climate, and no other companies so far have jumped into the breach. Intel officials say they love the program but are awaiting direction from their new CEO, Brian Krzanich, who takes the helm on Friday.

In the meantime, Sargent—a former science and technology policy fellow of the AAAS (publisher of ScienceInsider)—is relentlessly optimistic. She says that her "hobby job," a term Intel employees use to describe external activities that the company encourages, demonstrates how society can benefit from having industry scientists take temporary positions within the government. "It's a situation in which everybody wins," she says.