BLOOMINGTON — A $4.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation will provide scholarship money for students and for community-based research projects in a joint effort involving Illinois Wesleyan University, Illinois State University and Heartland Community College.
The grant will fund a project named “NexSTEM: A Community Assets Program that Fosters the Next Generation of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) Leaders.”
The program is designed to provide not only scholarships but also research opportunities and mentoring to talented high school students in McLean County and surrounding areas who are interested in STEM but have financial barriers or limited familiarity with STEM careers that are obstacles to completing a bachelor's degree.
Under terms of the five-year grant, nearly $2.8 million will go to scholarships and more than $1.8 million will be funneled to such things as research projects and mentoring.
Recruitment efforts will be focused on schools in McLean County and the surrounding area but others can apply.
The initiative has been nearly three years in the making and grew out of a visit with Department of Education representatives during a One Voice lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., in spring 2016 organized by the Bloomington-Normal Economic Development Council.
IWU President Eric Jensen said “NexSTEM is going to change lives” by making a four-year degree attainable for students for whom it might otherwise be financially out of reach.
Scholarships will be awarded based on merit and financial need. Organizers anticipate awarding 10 to 12 scholarships of up to $10,000 at each of the three schools in fall 2019 and a similar number in fall 2020.
Students can apply at NexSTEM.org.
Once accepted in the program, each student will be assigned a faculty mentor and a student mentor. Although they may be attending different schools, there will be cross-campus projects that bring them together.
Becky Roesner, IWU professor and chair of chemistry, said, “Just as our three campuses can do more together than separately, students can do better as part of a community.”
Roesner is the “principal investigator” on the grant. The other grant leaders are Willy Hunter, ISU's director of the Center for Mathematics, Science and Technology, and Lauren Denofrio-Corrales, instructional chair of science at Heartland.
Students will be involved in collaborative research projects that serve not-for-profit agencies in the community.
Heartland President Keith Cornille said what is especially exciting is that students who start at Heartland can carry their scholarship with them if they transfer to IWU or ISU.
“Our goal is to provide a pathway to success for all students,” said Cornille. “It's our hope more students will be able to go to college and reach the dream of career in STEM.”
Jensen said all three schools have STEM-related programs and student support programs but each has its own niche. The programs complement rather than duplicate each other, organizers said.
“By combining our resources, we are stronger,” said ISU President Larry Dietz. “It's not the first time we've worked together.”
Jensen said he thinks the existing cooperation among the three schools and plans to work together “really captured the imagination” of the National Science Foundation.
Charlie Moore, president and CEO of the McLean County Chamber of Commerce, said workforce numbers in McLean County have been in decline and there is concern about finding qualified employees for STEM jobs.
He said it's a matter of working together to “establish a workforce pipeline” and also “to build and grow an economically prosperous McLean County.”
Bloomington District 87 Superintendent Barry Reilly and McLean County Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel, who were at the announcement, agreed the program will be good for students in their school districts.
“The stars are aligning,” said Reilly.