Growing STEM Scholars

2011 STEM Scholars. Front row, L-R, Tyler Ingram, Sergio Sanchez, Jessica Pluhm. Back row, L-R, Kerishena Deal, Maggie Hammar M.S. ’12 (student mentor), Elizabeth Johnson, Jair Robinson, Alonnis Brown, Kwesi Osafo, Andy Kirby, Chijoke Ezem.

By Abby Rhodes
August 30, 2011

At first glance Tyler Ingram ’15 and Rachel Briskey ’11 have little in common. They’re from different states, enjoy very different hobbies – Ingram loves to draw and paint while Briskey likes to take things apart and figure out how to put them back together, and they have different ethnic backgrounds. The characteristic they share, however, could put them on the leading edge of a movement to bolster the nation’s intellectual capital and, thus, the United States economy.

They are both seeking careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields – areas in which the U.S. education system is lagging, and majors in which Ingram, as an African American, and Briskey, a female, are underrepresented. That tie that binds has brought the two students together to pursue their dreams at Bradley through the STEM Scholars program, which awards annual scholarships and comprehensive support to academically talented, financially disadvantaged students pursuing majors and, ultimately, careers in STEM fields.

“The U.S. is no longer at the forefront internationally in terms of producing and retaining our STEM workforce, and if you look at the major challenges facing our nation – from food supply chains to heath care to air quality – many of them are related to these fields,” said Dr. Kelly McConnaughay, professor of biology and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “Bradley is committed to bolstering the nation’s progress in these areas by fostering higher graduation rates among STEM students and thereby building a more robust, diverse workforce.”

From Bradley’s remarkable science and engineering faculty, the STEM Scholars receive careful guidance and four years of mentored research opportunities designed to feed their thirst for learning and guide them into a workforce hungry for their skills.

The STEM scholarships are funded through a $600,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant awarded to Bradley in 2008. The STEM Scholar award, coupled with financial assistance from Bradley, covers 100 percent each student’s need.

Briskey, from Indianapolis, Ind., was in the first class of STEM Scholars, a 12-member group comprised of freshmen and transfer students who are now beginning their third year at Bradley. “Coming out of high school, I had all the passion and talent I needed to become a successful engineer, but lacked the means for an education of the caliber Bradley offers. The STEM Scholars program made that possible for me,” said Briskey, an industrial engineering major who spent last summer interning for John Deere Des Moines Works.

Each group of incoming STEM Scholars arrive on campus one week before the fall term to get acquainted with Bradley and each other, the idea being that a strong support system and comfortable environment will help the students succeed in rigorous academic programs. Students must maintain a 3.0 cumulative grade point average in math and science courses and a 2.8 cumulative grade point average overall to retain their STEM Scholarship.

“Maybe that doesn’t sound so hard, but I’m a freshman – I don’t know yet how college goes,” said Ingram, a biology major from Peoria. “I’m shooting for a 4.0, of course, but it’s nice to know that if it becomes a challenge, I have a support network of classmates and mentors there to help me out.”

Ingram has already proven he’s up to a challenge. He was just a sophomore in high school when he started undergraduate-level research at Bradley through other programs designed to encourage talented students from underrepresented social and economic classes to pursue STEM studies. As an intern for the Building Excellent Scientists for Tomorrow, or BEST, program, Ingram worked alongside Bradley faculty doing data analysis, fieldwork and data collection for several biology and chemistry studies. Last summer, he participated in Bradley’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program.

“I know I want to do research, but I don’t know exactly what career I want, but I feel like that’s something the STEM Scholars program is going to help me with,” Ingram said. “That’s the point – to help us with our future and keep us on the right track here at Bradley.”