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STAIRSTEP program exceeds goals

A Lamar University program designed to retain students in science and technology related fields has exceeded its goals in student retention and placement.

Students Advancing through Involvement in Research Student Talent Expansion Program (STAIRSTEP) exceeded its 70 percent retention rate goal by 21 percentage points. As of October, 91 percent of participants retained their Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) related majors.  The program also exceeded its 80 percent goal of transitioning students into graduate school or STEM related fields within six months of graduation, at 83 percent. These results were obtained through an annual assessment by Judith Mann, assistant professor of psychology and director of STAIRSTEP assessment.

The STAIRSTEP program, funded by the National Science Foundation, aims to help students advance into the professional STEM fields and graduate school by helping students develop research and presentation skills that will enhance their success in the academic and professional world. The program is supported by a five-year Student Talent Expansion Program (STEP) grant and is currently in its fourth year.

Peggy Doerschuk, professor of computer science and director of STAIRSTEP, said the program covers five disciplines: computer science, mathematics, geology, chemistry and physics. Students work together in teams under the guidance of a faculty mentor in their respective STEM disciplines.

Doerschuk said the experience in STAIRSTEP is a tremendous asset when applying for graduate school and employment in STEM fields.

“It is a big plus when employers look at resumes and an applicant has experience in research, outreach, teamwork or tutoring,” she said. “We have had some students graduate the program and go on to get jobs, and others who have been accepted into prestigious graduate programs.”

William Ware, a physics and electrical engineering graduate from Huntington, said the research he conducted during the STAIRSTEP program with faculty mentor Christian Bahrim, associate professor of physics, helped him excel in his coursework at Lamar. Ware received a Plummer award upon graduation from Lamar in May 2012.

“At first, I was a little timid about joining STAIRSTEP,” he said. “When I actually got started researching and working with other students, the timidness went away and I loved it. Studying how light interacts with the world around us gave me incredible insight into various realms of physics and things started to make sense. I began to improve in my physics courses because many of the basic concepts we were studying I had already learned while in STAIRSTEP.”

Ware began graduate school this fall at Purdue University, where he was awarded the Purdue Doctoral Fellowship. He said he feels the STAIRSTEP experience gave him an advantage over other students during the application process.

“With two years of research experience under my belt, I had a leg up on other applicants,” he said. “Now that I am accepted, I feel like I am ahead of my peers because of experiences I have had. Because of my experience in STAIRSTEP, I know I will be successful in the future.”

Lucas Castle of Beaumont participated in the STAIRSTEP Math team, led by mentor Jennifer Daniel, associate professor of mathematics and associate director of STAIRSTEP. Castle is currently pursuing graduate study at Daniel’s alma mater, North Carolina State University.  Castle received a Plummer award upon graduation from Lamar in May 2012.

“STAIRSTEP served both as an inspiration and a springboard into pursuing graduate studies in mathematics,” Castle said. “I am greatly appreciative to have had the opportunity to participate in the program. I hope that the experiences and atmosphere provided by STAIRSTEP will serve to strengthen my graduate school career and future as a mathematician.”

The STAIRSTEP program also affords students the opportunity to present their research at professional and collegiate conferences.

“Some of the conferences have competitions where the students are judged on the quality of their work, research, verbal and visual presentation, and the explanation of it,” Doerschuk said. “They get to meet people, network and learn about fellowship and research opportunities.”

Nick Lanning, physics and mathematics graduate from Orange, presented his research with his mentor, Bahrim, at the 2012 American Physical Society March Meeting in Boston, Mass. The APS March Meeting is the largest physics meeting in the world, hosting as many as 7,000 research presentations.

Lanning earned a Society of Physics Students Undergraduate Presentation Award at the conference for outstanding poster presentation. He attributes his success to the important skills hat STAIRSTEP helped him develop.

“I feel that I have developed skills as a researcher, skills necessary to write and communicate my ideas clearly and, the most challenging for me, the confidence necessary to be a good presenter,” he said.

Computer Science students Matthew Williamson of Hardin and Billy J. Newman of Jasper, led by faculty mentor Doerschuk, presented their research at the Association for Computing Educators in Texas Conference in October. Their research determined that engaging high school students in a hands-on game programming academy in summer 2012 increased their interest and knowledge of computing skills.

Crissie Vandehoef of Port Neches participates on the STAIRSTEP Chemistry team led by mentor Christopher Martin, associate professor of chemistry,. She was recently awarded a 2013 David J. Beck Fellowship, one of Lamar's highest honors. Next summer, she will be performing research with Dr. Robert Colbert, Chief of the Pediatric Translational Research Branch and Deputy Clinical Director of the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases at the National Institutes of Health. "STAIRSTEP played a significant role in helping me to secure the Beck Fellowship," Vandehoef said.

Other STAIRSTEP accomplishments include a team of four STAIRSTEP Chemistry students, led by faculty mentor Martin, attending the Sabine-Neches section of the American Chemical Society chapter meeting in March. A team of Geology STAIRSTEP students, led by faculty mentor Joseph Kruger, associate professor of Earth and Space Sciences, presented their research at the 115th Annual Meeting of the Texas Academy of Science in March.

Doerschuk said the faculty mentors are proud of their students’ achievements and gratified to have played a part in their success.