Nelson Institute awarded UW-Madison’s first S-STEM grant from NSF

March 2, 2012

The Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies has been awarded UW-Madison's first-ever National Science Foundation S-STEM grant for undergraduate scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

The five-year, $600,000 grant will provide scholarships for students in the Nelson Institute Community Environmental Scholars Program (CESP). These scholarships are need-based and include funding for students from underrepresented minority groups as well as first-generation, veteran, disabled or returning adult students.

The grant builds on the previous success of CESP, explains project leader Cathy Middlecamp, an associate professor of environmental studies and Howe Bascom Professor of Integrated Liberal Studies. The CESP program trains undergraduates to work with environmental and community organizations, provides them with professional training, and offers opportunities to link their studies with community service.

Over the five-year grant period, CESP will be able to award at least 35 additional scholarships averaging $8,000 each, supporting a cohort of students in STEM fields.

"This award is unusual in that the NSF S-STEM program typically awards scholarships to students in their first two years of college," says Middlecamp. "But we were able to make the case to the reviewers that CESP serves a key role by launching juniors and seniors into the next phase of their careers with a great set of skills and experiences."

CESP academic coordinator Rob Beattie, who helped develop the proposal, says students are more likely to remain in STEM majors when they're able to link their studies with real-world problems. "About 40 percent of the certificate students in the Nelson Institute are in STEM disciplines," he says. "With CESP, we link community involvement with environmental studies. It's a huge advantage for the students."

Middlecamp notes that the S-STEM award will help the diverse group of students with whom she has worked to achieve their goals.

"I've seen a common denominator over the years: students want to give back to their community," says Middlecamp. "Environmental studies provide a perfect opportunity for students to couple their professional skills with service to their home communities."

Beyond academics, the CESP program focuses on lifelong skills such as resume building, job searching skills and networking. "We're trying to launch students for success, and part of that is intensive advising," Beattie says. "From my experience, I can tell how great our undergrads are, but they often don't realize it. Now we have the resources to provide these students with more guidance on how to enter the professional world."

Middlecamp sees it as one more step that the Nelson Institute can now take to ensure student success.

"This award helps undergraduates to pursue environmental studies, to successfully complete the program, and to be poised to take what they know into the real world," she explains.

With the establishment of the Nelson Institute's environmental studies major last fall and reorganization of its undergraduate certificate, more students from STEM fields will have the opportunity to pursue an environmentally focused education. The updated certificate requires students to complete 15 credits, down from the 26 credits required by the previous certificate.

"Chemistry and engineering have strict requirements," explains Beattie. "An easier-to-attain certificate should allow us to attract more STEM students and offer them a social perspective on the environment."

NSF reviewers ranked the Nelson Institute proposal highly. "This is not surprising," Middlecamp says, "because we have great students, a great faculty and staff support, a compelling narrative, and a timely project."

Other faculty members contributing to the the S-STEM project include professors Nick Balster, Tracey Holloway, Marty Kanarek, Jon Martin, and Janet Silbernagel, with support from Nelson Institute staff members Molly Schwebach, Carmela Diosana and Tristin Marotz.

The application deadline for the first cohort of S-STEM students is Thursday, March 15 for scholarships to be awarded for the 2012-13 academic year.