One challenge facing many schools is how best to attract first-generation college students and those from groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences to pursue careers in science. Since 1994, the University of Miami (UM) has used support from HHMI and the National Institute of General Medical Sciences to build a highly successful bridge program that helps students from nearby Miami Dade College (MDC) transfer to four-year institutions, including highly selective colleges and universities. Most of those students complete bachelor's degrees in the sciences.
The bridge program supports about 15 new Bridge Scholars per year. More than a quarter enroll in Ph.D. programs, says HHMI program director Michael Gaines, and about 30 percent go to medical school. MDC is the largest community college in the country, graduating more minority students than any other two-year college in the U.S. Since 1998, 275 HHMI-supported MDC and UM undergraduates have received B.S. degrees in a science, technology, engineering, or math field.
Despite Miami's impressive history in preparing undergraduate students from underrepresented backgrounds to succeed in science, the school sees an opportunity to do more to support those students pursuing graduate science degrees. To that end, UM is using a portion of its new $1.4 million HHMI grant to spearhead an approach that focuses on those students’ families.
“We felt it was really important to bring families in,” says Gaines, a professor of biology. “We know our Bridge Scholars are more likely to choose careers in research if their parents support that choice.”
As part of the MDC bridge program, families of MDC students will be invited to campus for “Family Science Sundays,” where they will conduct a one-day research project and interact with faculty members. Projects will include using DNA fingerprinting to solve a mock crime and looking at the effects of pollutants on sea urchin development.
The parents love it, Gaines says. “They gain a better understanding of what it means to be a research scientist and have fun, to boot,” he notes. Over the next four years, Gaines and his team will develop new Science Sunday research projects, involve more faculty, and assess the effectiveness of the new approach.