S-STEM Scholarships

Scientific community supports scholarship recipients in more ways than one

Every Thursday afternoon, the same five Belmont students head to the dean’s conference room in the Wheeler Humanities Building.  But they’re not there to ditch a class or for delinquent behavior.

The freshman science majors each received $10,000 annual scholarships from the National Science Foundation, and their weekly meeting with Dr. Mike Pinter, a mathematics professor, is Belmont’s way to ensure they’re getting the emotional support they need, not just the financial support they got.

“What Dr. Pinter is trying to do is really get to know them and find out their needs,” said Dr. Glenn Acree, another mathematics professor.  “We’re giving them this money, we’re giving them these resources, but we want very much for them to be successful.”

The scholarships are part of a larger NSF grant Belmont received for more than half a million dollars.  Over the next four years, the grant will help fund scholarships for 20 students, including these five freshmen.  Students who receive the grant must intend to major in one of the underrepresented math and science fields.

For Johnny Leonardini, choosing a less popular field wasn’t difficult—he’s a computer science major, and he’s never wanted to do anything else.

“I’m pretty much addicted to computers.  I’ve been programming computers for a really long time and I have, like, 14 of them in my dorm now,” he said.

Along with computer science, scholarship recipients are chosen from five other majors: mathematics, biochemistry and molecular biology, environmental sciences, neuroscience, and applied discrete mathematics.

Most incoming freshmen “tend not to know these other sorts of things, and so the point of it was through these scholarships to acquaint students with the breadth of what’s available in science,” said Dr. Robert Grammer, associate dean of the School of Sciences.

This grant is the first of its kind for Belmont, one of 85 schools selected from a pool of nearly 300 applicants.

Acree hopes the honor of receiving such a prestigious grant will strengthen the reputation of Belmont’s science program.

“It feels like you hear too often we’re ‘Belmont’s best-kept secret’ or something.  We don’t want to be secret anymore,” said Acree.  “We have students that are doing amazing things throughout the sciences, and it’s time to get their stories out.”

The grant is administered through an NSF program called Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, or S-STEM.  The program was created in 2006 after a study by the Program for International Student Assessment showed the United States trailing other industrialized nations in science literacy, said Joyce Evans, a program director from the NSF.

“We really have to ramp up our efforts to make sure that the best and the brightest are not only getting into college but are succeeding,” she said.

Belmont also recognizes the important role science will play in the future, said Acree.  
“The world’s moving that way.  Everything is technology-related,” he said.  “For the nation to stay ahead in those areas, we need very bright students that are coming in and committed to science, technology and mathematics.”

Acree and other members of the science faculty had to find those students very quickly.  They didn’t know they had received the S-STEM grant until May 2009, and the NSF wanted Belmont to have its first group of scholarship recipients ready in the fall.

The faculty immediately searched through piles of applications from students who had already been accepted for freshman admission.

“It’s difficult to look at a student at 18 and say, ‘I think they’re going to stay in the sciences,’” said Acree.  “Part of what we’re looking for is a passion for science.  They’re excited about that, they’re inquisitive, they like to ask questions and find out about things.”

And it takes an especially strong passion to handle the hours science majors spend studying for exams, working in the lab and doing research, said Grammer.

“It’s going to get hard second semester; it’s going to get hard junior year.  Are they going to be able to persevere through that because they’re that dedicated?” he said.

After countless interviews, the science faculty found the students they were looking for: Leonardini, Paige Fralix, Liberty Foye, Hilli Levin, and Corey Schmidt.

Fralix had been planning to attend the University of Tennessee at Knoxville until she learned she had received the grant on May 1—the last day to declare acceptance to Belmont.

She plans to use the grant to study environmental science, which she’s loved since childhood.

“Just being with nature made me happy,” said Fralix.

Now that she’s at Belmont, Fralix said the group meetings with Pinter have helped smooth her college transition.

“With the amount of resources and the help that they provide, it is a good support system,” she said.

At the meetings, Pinter gives the students a break from their heavy workloads and just lets them talk with peers who share their love for science.

“Whatever you want to call this—it isn’t really a class … it’s based around us meeting new people and growing into the environment,” said Schmidt, a mathematics major.

And the students haven’t just made connections within Belmont.  Pinter has introduced them to industry professionals from the Nashville area and beyond.

Leonardini, for example, attended a professional conference with Acree.

“Actually, the first week of the semester, I got to shake hands with Steve Ballmer at the Nashville Technology Council here,” he said, eliciting vague nods of approval from his classmates at a recent weekly meeting. “He’s the CEO of Microsoft.”

“Oh, OK,” said Levin, an environmental science major.  “I was wondering.”

“That’s the closest I’ve ever been to $11 billion.  And ever will be,” Leonardini joked.

“Hey, don’t say that,” said Schmidt, a mathematics major.

“Yeah, seriously, I think if anybody could do it, you’ve got it,” Fralix added.

“You could write a computer program to make money,” Schmidt suggested.

The students laughed.

When Pinter learned he would be the mentor for the incoming scholars, he hoped to help them develop this sense of “both independence and interdependence” they now seem to have.

“I think it’s important for them to think of themselves as part of a community,” he said, and he wasn’t just referring to their weekly check-ins.  He believes the students are members of a broader scientific community, and he’s working hard to help them succeed in it.

Pinter’s dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed by his S-STEM scholars.

“I know that even just an extra hour a week is a lot for professors,” said Leonardini.  “They’re definitely putting a lot into it.”

Pinter and the science faculty are still tinkering with the kinks in the program, but Pinter said he enjoys the work, especially his time with the students.  “I’m the point of entry.  I’m excited about that,” he said.  “They’re not naïve; that’s not the word.  They’re kind of wide-eyed.  That excitement doesn’t get matched by anything else.”

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