Kickstarting STEM success

September 27, 2019

Building inclusive communities and driving innovation in STEMscience, technology, engineering, math are two of Arizona State University’s core values. The Science Foundation Arizona Center for STEM is strengthening this legacy through its KickStarter Program.

Through the National Science Foundation-funded program, SFAz Center for STEM at ASU, headed by Director Caroline VanIngen-Dunn, identifies two-year Hispanic-serving institutions eligible for federal funding and helps faculty develop competitive STEM education research proposals. In the past three months, the program has helped seven Hispanic-serving institutions receive over $5.5 million dollars in awards aimed toward strengthening STEM initiatives within their communities.  Faculty and staff from cohort three of the KickStarter Program at the NSF headquarters. Faculty and staff from Cohort 3 of the KickStarter Program at the National Science Foundation headquarters. Photo courtesy of Science Foundation Arizona Center for STEM at ASU. Download Full Image

Data gathered by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights shows that, from as early as eighth grade, Hispanic students are less likely to participate in STEM programs because of a lack of resources and equipment in schools, less access to early education and low expectations for STEM performance. The KickStarter program aims toward aiding Hispanic-serving institutions, which have 25% or more Hispanic student enrollment, secure grants to overcome these obstacles. 

“KickStarter has provided us with a replicable path to organize and strategize on NSF and other federal grants,” said Phil Lister, chair of biology and biotechnology at Central New Mexico Community College. “With such a large institution, it has been very easy to have projects and goals living in silos, but developing a cross-departmental team has alleviated some of the former fragmentation on goals and grant proposals.”

Since its inauguration, the KickStarter Program has helped community colleges receive awards totaling over $10 million. These funds reach 1,017 students, 341 faculty, 35 industry partners, 21 K–12 partners and 26 postsecondary partners at granted community colleges. 

The funding supports STEM scholarships, new courses, curriculum development, new classroom equipment, faculty professional development, culturally relevant practices and undergraduate research experiences. 

Faculty can seek funding to put toward creating webinars and workshops about STEM team formation, assessment, planning and proposal development to perform more meaningful research and better engage with their students. 

"It's very gratifying to see our work reaching people across the country and giving young people who otherwise might not have the opportunity to engage in STEM learning and research access to these experiences," said Cynthia Pickering, research program manager at the Center for STEM at ASU.

Some NSF grants that have been funded include the Integrating Research, Mentoring, and Industry Collaborations to Improve STEM Recruitment and Retention at Phoenix College; Cybersecurity Opportunities and Methods that Promote Access and Student Success at Miami Dade College in Miami, Florida; and the Increasing the Student Biotech Pipeline at Los Angeles Mission College. The STEM-Mia project which provides support to low-income STEM students at Miami Dade College also received support. 

Seven institutions recently awarded grants in 2019 through SFAz Center for STEM at ASU include University of New Mexico Taos, Central New Mexico Community College, Southwestern Community College, Pima Community College, West Hills Coalinga Community College, Central Arizona College and Mountain View College. 

One of the recent awards will sponsor a three-day national conference at ASU in the summer of 2020. The NSF-sponsored conference aims to identify the unique challenges that rural Hispanic serving institutions face in developing effective STEM programs with robust student enrollment. By bringing together leading faculty, staff, students and community partners, the conference will lay a foundation for potential solutions that can increase the quality of life and economic success for the people of these communities. 

Pickering believes that the Center for STEM at ASU’s work with community colleges can have global impact because STEM students are better prepared to thrive in a four-year institution and in the workforce. 

“The work that SFAz Center for STEM at ASU does with community colleges results in funding for STEM programs that advance inclusivity, access and student-centered practices at those institutions,” Pickering said. “These outcomes directly align with ASU’s mission to include and support students of every economic, social and cultural background in the classroom and in their communities.”

In the future, SFAz Center for STEM at ASU aims to implement existing awards effectively, work with more Hispanic-serving institutions, measure direct impacts of NSF grants and publish the results of their work.

Written by Maya Shrikant

Why demystifying FAFSA is key to boosting Arizona’s economy

September 27, 2019

At one point, when Arizona State University junior Jacqueline White was attending Mesa Community College, she was working three jobs to pay for school out of pocket. After she transferred to ASU, she realized she could have avoided that financial stress if only she had filled out a federal form she hadn’t ever heard of: FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).

“It was only later on when I started attending ASU that I realized what FAFSA was. Come to find out, actually all my school would have been covered by a Pell Grant had I submitted [a] FAFSA.”  ASU students helping community members at Future Sun Devil Family Day Community members in Tempe received FAFSA resources at a recent Future Sun Devil Family Day event at the ASU Tempe campus. Download Full Image

White, originally from Sierra Vista, Arizona, said being a first-generation student has meant learning these kinds of lessons along the way. Her parents didn’t have personal experience with higher education, and White said her high school didn’t have the resources to provide the guidance that she and her older sister needed as they began navigating the college admissions process. 

“It’s been a learning curve, to be honest. … I never understood FAFSA or Pell Grants, and loans seemed very intimidating and scary,” White said.

Luckily, White earned scholarships that helped along the way and also learned about what FAFSA could do when she transferred to ASU. Now White is studying public policy and public service and has earned distinctions such as the Newman Civic Fellowship and the Boren Scholarship in her time as a Sun Devil. 

Removing financial barriers for students like White is the goal of the community partners working on the Arizona FAFSA Challenge, which has a goal of increasing FAFSA completion in Arizona to 53% of high school seniors during the 2019–20 cycle. 

Completing the FAFSA gives students access to grants, work-study opportunities, institution-based aid and federal student loans to pay for college — especially for students with high financial need. FAFSA applications for the 2020–21 school year open Oct. 1. 

Rich Nickel, the president and CEO of College Success Arizona, describes FAFSA as a “silver bullet” when it comes to the affordability questions so many students face when considering pursuing a degree. And taking an hour to fill out the form can really pay off financially for families but also economically for the state. 

“What we know is that there is massive upside tied to the completion of that form,” Nickel said. “The average awardee of FAFSA is provided just south of $10,000.”

The FAFSA goals that ASU and community partners are working toward accomplishing are part of the larger context of the Achieve60AZ goal: By 2030, 60% of adults in Arizona ages 25-64 will hold a degree or high-value credential. That would mean about a 15 percentage point increase over the next 11 years. 

FAFSA completion is a crucial indicator of whether a high school senior is likely to enroll in college: 90% of high school seniors who complete the form attend college directly from high school. And in Arizona, one of the only states in the country without a robust, need-based financial aid system supported by state government, students depend even more on federal aid and therefore FAFSA completion.

Arizona currently ranks 49th in the country for FAFSA completion, partially because there are misconceptions about the process and partially because of a lack of resources to deliver consistent and quality information available about the process, especially in rural areas of Arizona. 

Nickel said the low completion rate in the state is due to barriers such as an extremely low counselor-to-student ratio in Arizona of 950 students per counselor and also confusion among families about what’s required and where to find it. Parents and students might not know where to find tax information or might have fears about how their financial information will be used or kept private.

“FAFSA is a government form. Although it’s been wildly simplified over the last several years, it’s still intimidating to some people,” Nickel said. 

Getting people quick access to FAFSA guidance is the inspiration behind Project Benjamin, a chatbot that will answer FAFSA questions 24/7 and provide nudges and support via text messages. ASU, as part of a coalition of cross sector community partners including Achieve60AZ, Arizona College Access Network, Arizona Postsecondary Commission, Be A Leader Foundation, College Success Arizona, Helios Education Foundation, Maricopa Community Colleges and Mesa Public Schools, was recently awarded $1 million in grant funding to launch the first FAFSA chatbot in the country. “Benji,” as the chatbot is known, will be utilized to serve 30,000 students and families throughout greater Maricopa County. 

Technology tools help amplify the in-person work that’s already taking place via ASU’s early outreach programs and school- and district-level programming throughout Arizona. The community partnerships are also earning national attention: ASU was a partner in the Mesa Public Schools’ recent FAFSA completion award of $100,000 from the National College Access Network FAFSA Completion Challenge for a targeted effort to increase the FAFSA completion rate in Mesa schools by five percentage points in a year. Arizona State University worked with Mesa Public Schools on the development and submission of the FAFSA Challenge Grant proposal and provided training and staff to support FAFSA completion events across the district, which included data-informed community outreach and peer coaching for graduating seniors.

Michael Garcia, director of opportunity and achievement for Mesa Public Schools, said the 10% rise in FAFSA completion in Mesa has led to a steep rise in college applications and admissions.

“Students who gain access to financial aid are also more likely to have a secure financial future and will likely be stronger contributors to our local economy over a lifetime,” Garcia said. “It's a win for everyone. This is why this year we aim even higher than last year at 55% completion, compared with our goal of 45% last year.”  

Overall, there’s a lot of momentum to move the needle on FAFSA completion. Nickel said even businesses are getting involved because of the economic benefits to the state and local communities. Since the average amount awarded for people who fill out FAFSA is nearly $10,000, middle-income families who participate see a huge economic effect, as does the local economy. 

“You start adding that up, all of a sudden what you’re looking at for every percent we increase FAFSA completion literally can equate to millions of dollars of new federal money coming into our state, going to our institutions, paying salaries of people who work there, buying books, being used at local restaurants. The community is starting to see that,” Nickel said. 

ASU leaders are dedicated to building on that momentum as a way to meet the goals of Achieve60AZ and continue to open up access to higher education for all Arizonans. 

“Achieve60AZ is a launching pad for a lot of great work that is happening in Arizona, including FAFSA completion. We are proud to be partners in this work because the form is a crucial indicator for college going and also because it’s part of a blueprint for achieving educational outcomes that will advance our economy and improve people’s lives,” said Sylvia Symonds, associate vice president for ASU Educational Outreach and Student Services.

Hannah Moulton Belec

Digital marketing manager, Educational Outreach and Student Services