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National Science Foundation Grants $649,111 to Western New England University

SPRINGFIELD — The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Western New England University (WNEU) $649,111 for a five-year grant to offer scholarships to students. The target populations are students who are high achievers in high school whose family demonstrates they will benefit from financial aid. The grant will create a community-outreach program to increase the number of high-school and middle-school students entering and succeeding in STEM fields.

The grant, titled Sustainable Pathways to Success for Low-income STEM Students Emphasizing Research and Innovation, was awarded to Jingru Benner, assistant professor of Mechanical Engineering and a team of educators from the university including Dean Hossein Cheraghi, Michael Rust, and Anthony Santamaria from the College of Engineering; Raymond Ostendorf from the College of Arts and Sciences; and Bryan Gross, vice president for Enrollment Management and Marketing. Benner will serve as principal investigator and project director.

The project will increase the number of high-school students who have access to enroll in the WNEU Mechanical Engineering program. The grant provides funding for an annual need-based scholarship that will be added on top of each student’s WNEU merit scholarship and can be combined with the university’s Women in Engineering or FIRST Robotics Scholarships.

In addition, the grant will fund critical resources for students in the program to receive targeted support to help them successfully graduate. The resources will include mentored research with faculty, entrepreneurship development, community-service projects, the option for participation in learning communities, and expert guest presentations. Students will also have access to customized career consultations to begin early career planning.

“The world needs the best and brightest minds to solve the problems of today — and those yet to be imagined,” WNEU President Robert Johnson said. “This grant will help us to welcome more deserving and high-achieving students into our supportive community. We are grateful for Dr. Benner and the team’s efforts to bring this important National Science Foundation grant to WNE.”

The program will study the impact of immersed research experiences combined with entrepreneurial mindset training on student retention and degree completion. It is the first National Science Foundation S-STEM grant awarded to WNEU, now nationally ranked with a top-100 Engineering program.

“The premise is that the combination of research experience, to deepen the student’s technical knowledge, and entrepreneurship skill development, to train the students to identify innovative opportunities and integrate classroom learning to create value for society, will improve the pathway to success for STEM students in achieving their career goals,” Benner explained. “The strategy for implementation is carefully designed and will be used in conjunction with other student services on the WNE campus.”

Such an investment has the potential to not only transform individual lives, he noted, but those they will impact through their future careers.

“The NSF grant is a vote of confidence that this program will advance the understanding of the relationship between the proposed activities and student success,” Gross said. “The findings from this project will add new knowledge toward defining what effective curricular and co-curricular activities work to improve the persistence and success rate of college students from low-income communities in STEM fields.”

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