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CHAMBERSBURG (Sept. 3, 2019) — Local STEM students will benefit from a nearly $1 million National Science Foundation grant to Wilson College for a groundbreaking new program to recruit area students.

The grant provides money to recruit area students majoring in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. It will support them with everything from stress management techniques and wellness practices to academic assistance, mentoring and career development.

The prestigious NSF grant provides Wilson with $997,509 over five years, beginning in October, for the college’s unique EncompassSTEM for Lifelong Success program. The grant establishes a recruitment program to provide scholarships to academically talented students with financial need. It targets students from eight school districts in rural southcentral Pennsylvania. They must pursue degrees in one of four targeted STEM majors: biology, chemistry, biochemistry or environmental science.

The grant provides 21 students from eight local school districts with up to $9,500 a year in scholarship aid. The goal is to attract more rural Pennsylvania students to the STEM fields and help them stay in school, graduate and have successful careers. A side benefit will be if those graduates return to rural parts of the state to work in STEM fields.

STEM Education: Foundation of the Future

“STEM education is really the foundation of our future, and for our local and regional economy to keep pace, we need more STEM-engaged students,” said Mike Ross, president of the Franklin County Area Development Corp., who predicts Wilson’s Encompass program could have “significant implications” for the local economy. “Growing talent locally, I think, bodes well for our future. Pick an industry─transportation, healthcare, agriculture─STEM is going to be at the heart of its success.”

Students study at the college’s science, technology and math center. Photos courtesy Wilson College.
Students study at the college’s science, technology and math center. Photos courtesy Wilson College.

In addition to recruiting and retaining more STEM students from the area, the program establishes “an ecosystem of rural student support services.” Those services include academic support, research opportunities for students, alumni mentoring, experiential opportunities, faculty and peer-to-peer mentoring, job/career development, internships and wellness, and stress-reduction activities.

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“Our academics are very strong here, but how can we do better for these students? That really is what this program is about,” said Wilson Professor of Biology Dana Harriger, who is the grant director.

One unique component is the program’s focus on helping reduce students’ stress and anxiety and maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Assessing Effectiveness

Wilson will collect and analyze data annually about the effectiveness of the program as part of the grant’s research component. The ability to fine-tune components of the program will more effective, according to Harriger.

An external evaluator will assess the program. An advisory board made up of community and business leaders, as well as alumni, will assist in the evaluation. Research results will be shared with regional and national stakeholders and other educational institutions.

“The knowledge gained from this grant could benefit other colleges similar to Wilson or bigger,” said Harriger.

Community partners have been notified about the NSF grant. Harriger is arranging visits in the coming weeks with partnering school districts to discuss the parameters of the program. She will also begin personally recruiting prospective students. The first students awarded the scholarships will enter Wilson in fall 2020.

The focus in 2019-20 will be on recruiting students and establishing strong connections with schools, businesses, mentors and prospective employers. Details of all the support components of the program will be fleshed out also. Those involve virtually every major administrative area of the college.

Creating Community Partnerships

“One of our goals with the Encompass program is to create strong, local community partnerships that will transform the lives of student-scholars and have a positive impact on our community,” said Wilson Vice President for Academic Affairs Elissa Heil. “This project will advance understanding of how to better develop STEM undergraduate programs and generate highly trained STEM graduates who have an appreciation for work-life balance and are adept at managing stress throughout their lifetimes.”

Wilson officials are excited about the Encompass program. They say it has the potential to benefit students who are part of the program and all Wilson students.

“If Encompass works as we envision, we could be using the program broadly on campus,” Harriger said. “Wilson could be a college that is known for these types of support systems.”

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