UNO and MCC STEPping Together


     The NSF funded project “UNO and MCC STEPping Together” is a broad based attempt to increase the number of students earning STEM degrees at the University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) and at Metropolitan Community College (MCC) also in Omaha, Nebraska.  UNO offers STEM bachelors degrees in biology, chemistry, computer science, geology, mathematics and physics as well as an increasing number of interdisciplinary STEM areas currently including bioinformatics and environmental studies.  MCC has created new associate degrees (as part of this grant work) in pre-biology, pre-bioinformatics, pre-biotechnology, pre-chemistry, pre-mathematics and pre-physics. 

Incoming UNO students declaring a STEM major are eligible for $1000 per semester scholarships that is renewable as long as progress is being made toward a STEM major.  MCC students pursuing a STEM associate degree are eligible for a $1500 Bridge Scholarship for their last quarters of study at MCC.  Those students then are encouraged to enroll in a UNO STEM bachelors program through the opportunity to have a corresponding scholarship at UNO.  A full time STEP outreach coordinator is employed by MCC to recruit for STEM students and to provide information about STEP scholarships.  UNO has a GTA in Industrial/Organizational Psychology assigned to selecting and monitoring STEP scholarships holders at UNO. 

UNO has begun an Early Undergraduate Research program to motivate more freshmen and sophomores to consider a STEM major.  UNO STEM faculty are provided a $4500 summer stipend for conducting such an activity usually during the summer but also possibly continuing into the next school year.  Students receive a tuition waiver for up to three credit hours of work. 

Details about the implementation of these activities are described below.  Much additional information is available at the website:


Answers to Questions posed by NSF

1.      Successes experienced –

a.       The annual degree data form numbers are going up as summarized below.  In these charts, UNO STEM refers to the areas of biology, chemistry, computer science, geology, mathematics and physics.  All STEM adds in several engineering departments which are located on the UNO campus but are administratively under UNL.  Super STEM also adds in the UNO programs in psychology and management information systems. (Note that the numbers in the table are for calendar years while the charts are for academic years.)


  UNO STEM   All STEM   Super STEM
2003 155 237 346
2004 164 272 439
2005 202 326 477

b.      Early Undergraduate Research has been quite well supported by UNO STEM faculty, six during the 2004-2005 academic year and a partly different group of six during the 2005-2006 academic year.  Faculty receive a $4500 summer stipend for their participation.

c.       There is excellent interaction between UNO and MCC.  The five PI’s, Hesham Ali (UNO Computer Science), Jack Heidel (UNO Math), Bradley Morrison (MCC Math), Michele O’Connor (MCC Math/Science) and Dana Richter-Egger (UNO Chemistry), hold monthly meetings which also include several UNO and MCC staff helping out with STEP.  MCC’s STEP Coordinator, David Reyes, has the job of recruiting and attracting MCC students into STEM concentrations.  He spends much time in the high schools and at community events talking about STEP. He has created a series of STEP brochures to pass out at all community events. These brochures provide discipline specific information about STEM degrees and related career opportunities. He also provides information about UNO STEM programs as well as those at MCC, in particular about all STEP scholarship support: MCC bridge scholarships, UNO STEP (Goodrich) scholarships and UNO Adult Learner Access Scholarship.  He informs MCC students about STEM Bridge scholarships at MCC and then makes sure they understand that they can continue receiving this scholarship at UNO. 

2.      Surprises –

a.       Awareness of the Adult Learner Access Scholarship has been slow to develop.  This scholarship, advertised on the UNO Financial Aid webpage, pays tuition for a three hour STEM course for returning students.  The application process is simple, there is no deadline and the processing time is short.  Nevertheless there have only been five such awards given so far.  Since this includes three Spring 2006 awards, it is hoped that awareness is now finally beginning to increase. 

3.      How many students have been impacted?

a.       34 STEP scholarships, $1000 per semester, have been offered so far, primarily to entering freshmen, in Fall 2004 and Fall 2005.  Fall 2006 scholars are currently being recruited.  Subject to continued success in a STEM major, they are renewable for up to three years.  18 are female, 16 male.  5 are Black, 5 are Hispanic and 7 are Asian.  Of the 16 2004 scholarships, 15 were renewed for the second year.  Currently 12 of these 15 students are still pursuing a STEM major and therefore are eligible to continue their scholarship for a third year. 

b.      Early Undergraduate Research – During the 2004-2005 academic year 35 students participated in EUR activities, most of them receiving 3 credit hours of free tuition.  During the 2005-2006 academic year 21 students participated in a similar manner.  They were equally divided between men and women. 

c.       MCC STEM students – Four MCC students received Bridge Scholarships during 2004-2005 and 15 MCC students are currently receiving these scholarships during 2005-2006.  They pay up to $1500 for tuition, books and other expenses.  One former MCC student is currently receiving a UNO bridge scholarship and three MCC students have applied for Fall 2006. 

4.      Significant changes from planned activities – None

5.      Challenges faced –

a.       Establishing a good working relationship between UNO and MCC – Such a relationship is not automatic and has to be developed.  The cultures of the two institutions are quite different.  For example, UNO faculty typically teach 9 hours per week and have a research assignment as well.  MCC faculty have a 16 and ½ hour per week teaching load and no research assignment.  This creates different faculty incentives.  UNO faculty have to be either well motivated or somehow need to be persuaded to attend meetings.  This has made it difficult to achieve more interaction between the two faculties.  UNO is on a semester system while MCC is on a quarter system.  This makes it difficult to implement joint courses and other joint activities such as student feedback questionnaires. But this mutual awareness of different educational styles has not interfered with working together in many areas of common interest.

b.      Encouraging MCC students to continue their education at UNO – Now that a significant number (15) of MCC STEM students are currently receiving Bridge Scholarships, MCC and UNO are starting to work together to figure out an effective way to encourage their eventual transfer to UNO.  We are preparing to send them letters from the UNO STEM departments offering to have them stop by and talk about this possibility.  Then we will also start sending UNO letters to MCC STEM students even before they qualify for MCC scholarships (when they are within 30 hours of graduation).  We will reinforce the message they are already receiving from David about the availability of Bridge Scholarships at MCC.

c.       Uneven success in Early Undergraduate Research – Even though EUR has been a success overall, there is still much room for improvement.  One assistant professor in biology supervised 10 EUR students each year.  Another supervised a total of twelve in two years.  A geology professor supervised 8 EUR students the first year.  The other faculty participants have had much smaller numbers.  Since there are approximately 90 tenured or tenure-track STEM faculty at UNO, it is hoped to motivate additional faculty to submit attractive EUR proposals which will appeal to significant numbers of students.

d.      Letting the world know what we are doing – All five of the PI’s have made one or more presentations about STEP at local, regional or national meetings.  Inquiries about STEP from other educational institutions are received occasionally.  Just having a full time MCC STEP Coordinator making repeated visits to all Omaha area high schools appears to be generating sufficient local exposure to sustain awareness of grant activities in Omaha.  But creating awareness more generally in the region or nation is hard to accomplish.  It would be nice to figure out a way to combine information about local grant successes into a concerted national plan for broad exposure of what STEP can do and has already done to increase interest in science. 

6.      Integration of program activities –

a.       Math/Physics Walk-in Tutoring – The Mathematics Department has staffed a walk-in tutoring room for several years.  Under STEP this has been expanded to a Math/Physics Walk-in Tutoring Room, open 25 hours per week.  Discussions are being held with Chemistry to include it as well.

b.      Mathematics and Biology – The STEP EUR activity has been especially well supported by the Biology Department.  This led to the submission of UBM (Interdisciplinary Training for Undergraduates in Biology and Mathematics) proposals to NSF in Spring 2004 and 2005.  Although unfunded, the groundwork has been laid for continuing interaction in quantitative biology. 

c.       Bioinformatics – The undergraduate degree in Bioinformatics at UNO is a joint between Computer Science (in the College of Information and Technology) and Biology (in the College of Arts and Sciences).  It is one of only a few such programs in the US and already, in only a year and a half, has 37 majors.  Many students in the program are involved in interdisciplinary research activities supported either by STEP or the NIH INBRE program.

d.      MCC’s STEP Coordinator, David Reyes, spends much time at area high schools and community events distributing STEP literature about UNO STEM programs as well as MCC STEM programs.  MCC’s STEP Coordinator, David Reyes, spends much time at area high schools and community events distributing STEP literature about UNO STEM programs as well as MCC STEM programs.  Such a combined approach enables him to provide prospective students and their families a broad view of educational opportunities in the Omaha area.

7.      Impact beyond intended goals –

a.       Involvement of UNO Psychology Department – UNO’s A&S Dean, Shelton Hendricks, a psychologist, has been involved in STEP right from the very beginning of proposal preparation.  As soon as the proposal was accepted by NSF, he arranged for a graduate student in Industrial/Organizational Psychology to be in charge of recruiting, selecting and mentoring STEP scholarship holders.  Also at the Dean’s suggestion, STEP evaluation and assessment has been turned over to a social psychologist, Carey Ryan.  She and her students have developed an evaluation research project (see 10b) to assess some of the factors (e.g., social climate, identification, beliefs about the malleability of intelligence, and academic self-efficacy), which may influence students’ interest in science majors.  The evaluation is thus more theoretically based than originally conceived and has so far involved more than five psychology majors and four graduate students in social and industrial/organizational psychology.  Two of the undergraduates have presented this research at the annual conference of the Nebraska Psychological Society and are now completing senior theses that are based on this research. 

b.      New UNO/MCC GTA positions – UNO and MCC personnel, having worked together on STEP, set up a new type of UNO GTA position, whereby graduate students teach at MCC which then reimburses the teaching salary to UNO.  Now in the third year of operation, four graduate students in mathematics have been supported this way so far.  Other departments are being encouraged to participate.

c.       Interdisciplinary research inquiries in introductory chemistry and geology – The STEP grant provided supplementary support for a project funded primarily by the CCLI grant DUE-0411164.  The goal of this project is to positively impact student attitudes about science (particularly chemistry) through authentic scientific experiences.  Beginning in the fall of 2005, several hundred students each semester are studying lead contamination in soil in and around an EPA superfund site in Omaha.  Geology students collect the soil samples which are then analyzed by chemistry students with a new ICP-MS instrument.  Self selected geology and chemistry students then do further analysis and interpretation of the aggregate data and present their findings to all of the other involved students.  The plan is to repeat this activity each fall and spring semester.  The goal is to attract more majors into chemistry and geology.

d.      Brief research experience in biology and chemistry – The STEP EUR activity has also recently led to the submission of a CCLI proposal “Taking Science for a Test Drive” by faculty in Biology and Chemistry.  This project will focus on MCC students and pre-service teachers at UNO as well as general non-STEM majors at UNO.  Sixty students per year, in groups of ten, will be given two week research experiences during the summer.  The intention is to attract more students into the study of biology and chemistry.  This project is being headed by an assistant professor of biology who has been especially successful in recruiting students into EUR. 

8.      Achievements through partnerships –

a.       Six new pre-STEM associate degrees have been created at MCC (pre-Biology, pre-Bioinformatics, pre-Biotechnology, pre-Chemistry, pre-Mathematics and pre-Physics).  The Computer Science Associate Degree already existed before STEP.  The STEP coordinator, David Reyes, is recruiting potential and current MCC students into these degree programs and administering the Bridge Scholarship program which is intended for MCC students as soon as they get within 30 hours of completing one of these degrees.  David is also informing MCC students that these Bridge Scholarships will continue if they transfer into a UNO STEM program.

b.      MCC is attracting more students with STEM academic interests.  In 2005 40 graduating high school students with STEM career interests sent their ACT scores to MCC.  In 2006 this number has increased to 138 graduating high school students.  This large increase has most likely been achieved because of David’s repeated visits to all 29 Omaha area high schools with information about STEP activities at both MCC and UNO. 

c.       Summer science for high school students – A program for junior and senior high school students is being planned for June 2006 to further encourage the study of science.  The program will be a one-week intensive hands-on experience focusing on genetics.  Students will work in UNO labs during the first part of the day and then take field trips to area industries which utilize similar laboratory technologies.  This activity will expose students to science in “real life” and will also engage industry in science education.  The program will be facilitated by MCC and UNO and utilize area high school science instructors. 

d.      Outreach – On February 1, 2006, UNO and MCC cosponsored a theatrical production “1001 Black Inventions” which highlights the accomplishments of African-Americans in the world of science.  Two performances were given to several hundred high school students and people in the community.

9.      Internal Advisory Board –

a.       STEP personnel met last summer with the chief academic officers from UNO and MCC.  Since Hesham Ali is Associate Dean of UNO’s IST College, Jack Heidel is Chair of Mathematics and Michele O’Connor is MCC Dean of Math, Science and Health Careers, upper level administrators at both UNO and MCC are kept continually aware of STEP activities. 

10.  Measures and Metrics –

a.       Degree Data Form – These data indicate that the STEP grant has been quite successful so far.  Not only have the numbers of UNO STEM graduates, UNO STEM minority graduates, and MCC transfer (to UNO) students increased since implementing STEP, these numbers even exceed those that were suggested in the proposal.

b.      Social climate assessment – We have begun and plan to continue gathering data to assess majors’ and non-majors’ perceptions, beliefs, and experiences in STEM courses.  One purpose is to determine whether the STEP goals of inclusiveness and diversity are permeating beyond the specific students who are directly affected through STEP scholarships or EUR support.  We expected that the concerted effort to increase students’ interest in STEM disciplines would lead to a generally improved social climate in STEM courses.  However, the results of the first assessment suggest that the social climate in STEM courses and departments was already remarkably positive.  These results were surprising given the literature suggesting that a negative social climate may be at least partly responsible for a lack of interest in STEM majors.  This assessment did suggest, however, that social identity and feelings of belongingness may play a role (e.g., some students simply do not see themselves as scientist-like and thus do not feel like they belong).  We are continuing this work with the goal of obtaining greater participation of students in underrepresented groups so that we can examine their perceptions in greater detail.  We also intend to examine other factors, especially social identity, which have been implicated in the literature.  We believe that efforts to increase student interest in science will be most successful in the long term to the extent that they are based on a clearer understanding of the reasons that underlie the phenomenon.  The complete first year social climate assessment report is available on the UNO STEP website.

11.  Sustainability –

a.       Science/Math Learning Center – A faculty member in the Geology Department has recently proposed that UNO establish a science/math learning center.  The A&S College is developing this suggestion for support as an NU system wide priority proposal.  One duty of such a center would be to conduct assessment of general education science courses.  Another would be to take over tutoring functions now supported by STEP.  A Learning Center would have the general mission of promoting interest in science which is exactly what STEP is trying to do.  If it is funded by the University, it will immediately become a priority of STEP to work closely together with it. 

b.      Biology and Chemistry CCLI proposal, “Taking Science for a Test Drive” – This proposal, already discussed above, is one way for the STEP EUR activity to be continued, expanded and institutionalized. 

c.       The hardest STEP activity to sustain, beyond the five-year life of the STEP grant, is the substantial scholarship program supported by the grant.  Between STEP (Goodrich) scholarships, MCC and UNO Bridge scholarships, Adult Learner Access Scholarships, and EUR tuition grants, STEP is already spending about $100,000 per year, and this is not counting administrative support.  This figure will continue to increase for a year or two limited only by the impending conclusion of grant support.  Private support for STEP scholarship endowment is being actively pursued by the PI and A&S Dean in conjunction with the NU Foundation. Continuation of Bridge scholarships through industry support is being explored by MCC with their community partners.

12.  What have we learned?

a.       Be broad based and inclusive.  The greatest strength of the UNO/MCC STEP grant is its breadth.  It includes six UNO departments in two different colleges as well as two different educational institutions.  Such breadth may mean more administrative hassles to contend with but it also means a larger number of eventual supporters. 

b.      Cast a wide net.  There are many newly developing connections between the academic areas which make up the STEM disciplines at UNO.  It is impossible to predict ahead of time how they might develop and grow if encouraged. 

c.       Reach out to all potential, as well as actual, STEM majors.  The study of science has great intrinsic appeal.  It takes some people longer than others to come to this realization and they may need extra encouragement in the meantime.

d.      But don’t try to be too broad! Although several engineering programs are located on the UNO campus, they are administratively under UNL.  No attempt was made to include UNL in proposal preparation as this was viewed as being too complicated.  Not surprisingly each year several applications for STEP scholarships are from students who want to study engineering in Omaha.  These applications are simply forwarded to the Engineering College. 

e.       By all indications, the UNO/MCC STEP grant has been successful so far.  The success can be attributed both to the generality of the approach as well as to the interest and enthusiasm of the participants.  It is suggested that detailed information (perhaps these reports) about the very best STEP programs be mutually shared by all participating STEP institutions.  In this way the individual STEP groups, who have already acquired much practical experience in implementing STEP programs, can become familiar with other successful programs.  Then various combined ideas and suggestions can be made available to new STEP programs as they are being developed. 

13.  Original targets and goals –

a.       The declining numbers in the two charts in the original proposal have been reversed as hoped for.  The updated charts, showing the turnaround, are at the beginning of this report.


Third Year Summary Poster