New $2.5 Million NSF Grant Will Fund Scholarship Program for Computer Science Students From Low-Income Backgrounds
WPI has been awarded a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to boost the enrollment, retention, and graduation of computer science students from low-income backgrounds by providing scholarships, mentoring, and programs that will empower the students to complete their degrees in four years.
The Path to Achieving Success and Sense of Belonging in Computer Science (PASS-CS) project will create a program for academically talented incoming first-year students who are eligible for federal Pell Grants, a form of financial aid for students from low-income backgrounds.
“WPI has a very good four-year graduation rate, as does the computer science department, but Pell recipients in computer science are less likely to complete their degrees in four years,” says Rodica Neamtu, professor of teaching in the Department of Computer Science and principal investigator (PI) on the grant. “In keeping with WPI’s mission to transform lives through degrees that can drive social mobility, our goal is to develop options and a supportive environment so that students can excel academically and go on to careers in computer science.”
The PASS-CS program will launch in 2024 with eight to 10 first-year undergraduates selected from Pell-eligible students who have been admitted to WPI and plan to major in computer science. Students in the program will be awarded scholarships of up to $15,000 a year for up to four years.
A second group of students will be selected for scholarships and programs in 2025, followed by a third group in 2026. In total, researchers expect to award scholarships and offer supporting programs to about 28 students.
Before the start of the academic year, new students also will be invited to participate in a summer “mini bridge” session on campus that will include math, physics, and computer programming bootcamps. The session will include workshops to help students navigate college life and take advantage of existing campus resources. Students will have access to faculty mentors and options to form small cohorts that will study and take courses together to build community, support structures, and a sense of belonging.
The six-year project is funded by a grant from the NSF’s S-STEM program, which aims to build America’s workforce by supporting academically talented, low-income students who are pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). PASS-CS is designed around evidence-based strategies for student success and knowledge gained from the Black Student Experience study at WPI, as well as the Great Minds/CoMPASS scholarship program, an S-STEM program that WPI launched in 2019 to support graduates of the Worcester Public Schools. The university also operates a third S-STEM program for transfer students who plan to pursue careers in clean energy technology.
Neamtu says it’s not entirely clear why retention rates lag for computer science students at WPI who have received Pell grants. Between 2015 and 2021, about 76 percent of Pell recipients in computer science remained enrolled at the start of their fourth year. In comparison, 86 percent of their classmates who had not received Pell awards remained enrolled.
“Some students may switch majors or need a fifth year to complete their courses, while others could be working jobs that leave them with less time for studying,” Neamtu says. “It’s possible that some students do not feel connected to other students in their department and the broader WPI community. We are not sure which factors impact these students, and that is why we are putting together a range of solutions and will investigate how financial assistance, mentorship, and community can make a difference.”
Co-PIs on the project are Debra Boucher, assistant dean of undergraduate studies, and Crystal H. Brown, assistant professor in the Department of Social Science and Policy Studies (SSPS). The leadership team also includes Kathy Chen, executive director of the WPI STEM Education Center, and Hermine Vedogbeton, visiting assistant professor at College of the Holy Cross and assistant research professor at WPI, who spearheaded the work on the grant proposal and was originally the PI.
Neamtu says that the research portion of the project will provide insights about student retention that may be useful to the computer science department and other departments in the future.
“If this is successful at supporting students to boost retention and timely graduation, we will want to continue these efforts,” Neamtu says. “I think we are going to learn a number of important lessons about creating an even better community for WPI students.”