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Voinovich Scholar evaluates program designed to draw Appalachian students to engineering careers

Jacob Zuckerman | Sep 29, 2016
Student Mica Smith, left, and faculty member Holly Raffle, right, evaluate a student scholarship program.
Student Mica Smith, left, and faculty member Holly Raffle, right, evaluate a student scholarship program. Photo credit: Ben Siegel/Ohio University

The science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields have faced challenges with attracting students from historically underrepresented groups. To address the issue, an Ohio University student is evaluating a scholarship program that was designed to draw more Appalachian students into STEM careers, and, in the future, could be used to recruit and retain other underrepresented groups.

For the past four years, the Appalachian Cohort of Engineering (ACE) program has supported a group of eight to 12 Appalachian students per year to enroll in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology and given them tools to help them succeed. Mica Smith, a Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs Undergraduate Research Scholar, has been monitoring and evaluating the program to determine its efficacy.

Smith is majoring in Spanish and political science, while also studying Arabic and earning a Teaching English to Foreign Learners certificate. She has a unique understanding of the ACE students: Smith is a native of Portland, Ohio, a small township in rural Meigs County.

The ACE program is no ordinary scholarship. While most programs simply give students money, the ACE program requires the students to attend weekly peer-mentoring sessions, as well as several different monthly meetings. Students also have access to pre-enrollment summer programs, and instruction and mentoring in entrepreneurship.

Holly Raffle, associate professor at the Voinovich School, says ACE is unique in how it’s designed for students to reciprocate their scholarship with time, effort, and feedback. Raffle heads up the ACE program evaluation team on which Smith serves as the lead undergraduate student researcher.

“We want to help them through their transition from high school to college, which is difficult for a lot of students, but particularly Appalachian students who have always lived at home, close to family, in the same general location … and are just not used to not being around that family support they’ve always had,” Smith says.

Smith conducts interviews with the freshmen and with faculty, as well as focus groups with the juniors. She will conduct exit interviews with the program’s first batch of graduating seniors. Using her findings from the interviews, Smith and her colleagues suggest ways to rework the program on a continual basis so it evolves to cater to the students’ needs.

The team also compiles its findings into formal reports, which have been submitted to the National Science Foundation and a 2015 mentoring conference at the University of New Mexico, where the team presented its results.