St. Michael’s College educators learned last week the college earned a nearly $1 million scholarship grant – the largest in the college’s history – to help train students in the interrelated fields of math and science.
The grant was awarded by the National Science Foundation through a program specifically designed to encourage interdisciplinary education between STEM fields.
It provides up to $10,000 across four years to about 20 students who need financial help and are studying a combination of majors and minors in the life sciences and connotative fields, according to Jo Ellis-Monaghan, chair of the mathematics and statistics department and the lead principal investigator for the grant project.
Ellis-Monaghan said the scholarships allow students an opportunity to graduate with a unique skillset – one that recognizes the need to address some of the world’s problems on several fronts.
“The life sciences need more and more data handling and modeling in order to move forward,” she said. “If you were looking at questions of water quality, or you’re looking at environmental models, or you’re looking at declining populations in endangered species: All of these take really very sophisticated quantitative skills now.”
The NSF will benefit the college’s mathematics and statistics, biology, chemistry and computer science departments to fund the five-year project. In addition to the scholarships, it will also allow faculty to bolster enrichment programming, Ellis-Monaghan said, like summer research programs and networking opportunities, while also providing students two advisers, one from each side of the coin.
Created by Congress in 1950, the National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency that funds about one-fourth of all federally-supported basic research by American colleges and universities, according to its website.
The grant awarded to St. Michael’s aligns with a particular focus of the foundation: promoting interdisciplinary research, a mission the NSF says is based on the understanding that “important research ideas often transcend the scope of a single discipline or program.”
It may surprise some that a small, liberal arts college like St. Michael’s would warrant such a major investment for STEM education, especially considering the long focus of Catholic institutions on the humanities.
But Ellis-Monaghan said the college has had an unusual strength in the math and science fields and has produced very successful students, many moving on to well known graduate programs, under similar, smaller scholarship grants.
Plus, Ellis-Monaghan believes the wide-ranging focus of an education like that at SMC only benefits students: Not only will they learn the necessary skills, but they will also learn how to write and communicate them effectively.
She added those who graduate from the program will have a “significant competitive edge” over their peers because scientists and mathematicians who understand each other’s language are in high demand. That’s why she said she has lofty expectations for the program’s pupils.
“I expect them to be leaders in these fields,” she said.