National Science Foundation Awards Worcester Polytechnic Institute $1 Million to Attract and Retain STEM Majors from Worcester Public Schools

Grant will provide both scholarships and academic support for low-income, high-achieving first-year students
Media Contact
November 07, 2019

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a $1 million grant to Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) to help low-income, high-achieving students earn a STEM degree from the university. The NSF’s Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (S-STEM) program will fund four-year scholarships to WPI and provide academic support to 20 Worcester Public School graduates who  pursue bachelor of science degrees in STEM fields.


Tiffiny Butler

“As an institution, we’re committed to global impact and diversity, equity, and inclusion, and when we think about how we impact the world, that begins by cultivating the diamonds in our own backyard,” said WPI Director of Multicultural Affairs and Biomedical Engineering Professor Tiffiny Butler, principal investigator on the five-year grant.

The S-STEM grant addresses the nationwide need for well-educated STEM professionals by supporting efforts to recruit, retain, and graduate academically talented students who might otherwise not go to college or who may leave before earning a degree. These include low-income, first-generation, and/or underrepresented groups in STEM who face financial and social barriers to higher education.

“There are real and perceived barriers,” said Kristin Tichenor, who is consulting on this project and serving as co-principal investigator on the grant. “First-generation college students might not have the family exposure to higher education or a strong support network in their home community. They may think they don’t have the academic ability to succeed as STEM majors, or assume they won’t receive sufficient financial support.”

The S-STEM program will lower those barriers by meeting the full demonstrated financial need of Pell-eligible Worcester Public high school students up to the cost of tuition and fees of attending WPI, and through holistic, research-backed programming to help them adapt to undergraduate life and succeed as STEM majors and future professionals. Scholarships will be awarded to 10 first-year applicants from Worcester public high schools who are enrolling in fall 2020 and 10 in fall 2021, and will be renewable for a total of four years.

Impact…begins by cultivating the diamonds in our own backyard.
  • -Tiffiny Butler

Students will participate in a comprehensive program that will include optional pre-summer "bridge" courses, pre-orientation bonding activities, mentoring networks, a common first-year Great Problems Seminar course, individual development plans, professional development workshops, industry explorations, and on-campus paid research opportunities. Butler, who was the first in her family to attend college, says the program will use an assets-based approach that recognizes and builds off students’ strengths and incorporates research-backed strategies for student success. The project also has a research component that will examine how these undergraduates access and navigate existing institutional supports and how the institution might adapt to become more inclusive.

The S-STEM program will build upon the success of the Great Minds Scholars program, which WPI piloted this year with seven Worcester public high school graduates.


Katherine Chen

The project team will share results through presentations and publications at conferences such as the American Society for Engineering Education Conference and the Collaborative Network for Engineering and Computing Diversity Conference. The findings are expected to lead to lasting institutional change that will better serve this demographic and all students.

“Even though the immediate impact of the grant will support two cohorts of 10 students each throughout their time at WPI, we’re also thinking more broadly. Everything we learn should be applicable to other students here and elsewhere in rethinking how we support students and broaden the participation of STEM,” said co-principal investigator Katherine Chen, executive director of the STEM Education Center at WPI.

The  NSF’s Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics program seeks to increase the number of low-income academically talented students with demonstrated financial need who earn degrees in STEM fields. It also aims to improve the education of STEM majors as future employees, and to generate knowledge about academic success, retention, transfer, graduations, and academic/career pathways of low-income students.

About Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a purpose-driven community of educators and researchers, has been the global leader in project-based learning for 50 years. An impact maker for higher education and the world, WPI prepares confident, competent problem solvers with a project-based curriculum that immerses students in authentic, real-world experiences.