MSU nets $1M NSF grant to recruit, prepare students for STEM careers

Thousands of jobs in the STEM fields of food, energy and the environment are going unfilled in the U.S. today.

Eunice Foster

Thousands of jobs in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields of food, energy and the environment are going unfilled in the U.S. today. These applied biological disciplines are vital to our national and global security and economy, but graduate too few students to meet current and projected workforce demands.

A team of Michigan State University (MSU) researchers are working to recruit, nurture and graduate students who are prepared for these careers. They’ll do it with the help of a $1 million National Science Foundation (NSF) Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics grant (S-STEM).

The grant will provide scholarships to 24 high-achieving, low-income high school students who are interested in  animal science, crop and soil sciences, forestry, entomology, fisheries and wildlife, food science, or horticulture. The cohorts will include Lansing School District high school students, Lansing Community College students, and MSU students who haven’t declared a major.

“Too few students are entering these disciplines – a problem that can be addressed by an effective, multifaceted, experiential and interactive recruitment program that engages students,” said Eunice Foster, professor in the MSU Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, and principal investigator on the grant.

“Though many people want to know where their food comes from, there seems to be a disconnect in recognizing that science, technology, engineering and math are integral to the careers associated with food production, processing, packaging and delivery,” Foster said.

Researchers also will assess why so few students enter these career fields, which have high job demand and good salaries. They’ll use that information to further design and assess effective recruitment programs. Career opportunities are excellent and summer internships are readily available in these fields.

The current shortage of graduates from these disciplines  have resulted in growing concern among government agencies, the scientific community and STEM industries.

“The big question, for us, is why don’t students choose agriculture and natural resources as major areas of study?” said Brian Roth, associate professor in fisheries and wildlife. “Misconceptions about STEM programs are pervasive. Many students, parents, and K–12 educators mistakenly associate agricultural sciences with ‘sows, cows and plows,’ failing to realize that math, chemistry and biology course work provide the foundation for these STEM disciplines just as they do in the other sciences.”

Researcher Lorraine Weatherspoon, professor in the MSU Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, points to a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Purdue University study that found the U.S. has a surplus of 22,500 jobs in this sector, with 27 percent of the expected growth in STEM disciplines.

“Job market growth is expected in most STEM disciplines. The strongest job growth is expected in the sector that includes plant scientists, food scientists, sustainable biomaterials specialists and water resource scientists,” Weatherspoon said.

With the NSF grant, researchers will investigate the STEM pipeline and marketing issue, while developing a model to help recruit a diverse population of low-income, high-achieving students from high school, community college, and university students. Through the use of scholarship dollars, the team will work to recruit two cohorts of students into STEM programs in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources (CANR).

Other contributors include Gabe Ording, associate professor in entomology and director of the Center for Integrative Studies; Janice Siegford, associate professor in animal science; Jerry Urquhart, assistant professor in fisheries and wildlife and the Lyman Briggs College; and Steve van Nocker, professor in horticulture; Kelly Millenbah, associate dean of the college and professor in fisheries and wildlife; as well as Jim Lucas, assistant dean in the MSU Office of the Associate Provost for Undergraduate Education.

“We can only understand this issue if we take an interdisciplinary approach,” Foster said. “That’s why we have representatives from so many of our departments. “Students need to know that agriculture and natural resources are STEM disciplines, that these are good paying jobs in careers that make a difference in the world and that we work together across disciplines to solve critical problems that affect all of us.”

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