campus news

UB researchers awarded $1.5 million NSF grant to boost STEM students’ outcomes

Graphic illustrating concept of STEM featuring pentagon-shaped icons representing individual fields.


Published January 20, 2023

Kristen R. Moore.
“The project will demonstrate ways students can use their engineering and computer science knowledge and skills to make the world a fairer and more just place for everyone. ”
Kristen R. Moore, associate professor
Department of Engineering Education

Students who are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs are more likely to succeed if they experience positive psychosocial factors, such as sense-of-belonging and self-efficacy.

Less is known about how other matters, such as social justice awareness and socio-technical theory, play in ensuring these students excel in the classroom and beyond.

A multidisciplinary UB research team has been awarded a $1.5 million National Science Foundation grant to study these issues, and ultimately improve retention and graduation rates of high-achieving, low-income students pursuing STEM degrees.

On a larger scale, the project aims to help fulfill the national need for well-trained professionals in STEM fields.

The team, led by principal investigator Rajan Batta, will use the award over five years to fund scholarships and provide support services to 25 full-time students who are pursuing undergraduate degrees in engineering or computer science, or master’s degrees in biomedical engineering or engineering science.

Batta is associate dean for faculty affairs and diversity in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering.

Other investigators on the project are:

  • Harrison Kelly, associate professor of practice and director of undergraduate studies in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
  • Kristen R. Moore, associate professor in the Department of Engineering Education, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
  • Letitia Thomas, assistant dean for diversity, School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

To accomplish their goals, the investigators are developing a program that uses an inclusive learning community, which Batta calls the most significant aspect of the program. It will offer courses that examine the societal impacts of engineering and computer science, and put social justice theory into practice by working with a community partner on a social-justice themed project.

Investigators will to address such societal challenges as access to health care, access to clean air and water, and accessibility to technology.

“The project will demonstrate ways students can use their engineering and computer science knowledge and skills to make the world a more equitable and just place for everyone,” says Moore, who is also an associate professor in the Department of English, College of Arts and Sciences.

The program also will provide mentoring, professional development, experiential learning and research opportunities with faculty and community partners. These activities will be integrated with existing support activities and a new Social Impact Summer Research Program to foster academic success and retention.

“The most significant part of the project, for me, is increasing the active engagement of student participants in hands-on action and/or community-based research projects,” Thomas says. “Engagement in a social justice-infused curricula and training is also significant.”

The process for selecting participants is still being finalized. Batta said it will likely include an application, committee review and interviews.

First-year undergraduates will receive four-year scholarships and MS students will receive two-year scholarships. Students will receive up to $10,000 per year, and can use the funding for any educational expenses.

The program will begin in the fall 2023 semester and is expected to run through 2027.

“We are hopeful that this model can be institutionalized and become a part of UB’s regular offerings to students beyond the grant funding,” Thomas says.

This project is funded by NSF’s Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics program, which seeks to increase the number of low-income, academically talented students with demonstrated financial need who earn degrees in STEM fields.