UArizona will increase support for Hispanic and low-income STEM students with $5M grant

Old Main

The University of Arizona will be able to support more students – especially those who are Hispanic or from low-income households – studying science, technology, engineering and math, thanks to a nearly $5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The grant will establish Project CREAR, which stands for Culturally Responsive Engagement, Articulation and Research. The project involves a series of strategies designed to:

  • Provide STEM learning communities so students experience a sense of belonging in their STEM programs.
  • Provide tools for students to more easily transfer to UArizona from other institutions.
  • Increase the number of undergraduate research opportunities at UArizona.
  • Train faculty, staff and student mentors on improving inclusivity in their interactions.

The project aims to expand the reach of successful UArizona STEM student programs, including the ASEMS, or Arizona's Science, Engineering and Math Scholars, and Catapult First Year Experience programs, which will impact over 4,000 students by the end of the five-year grant. 

"Success in our educational mission relies on the University of Arizona ensuring that every single one of our students has plenty of opportunities to engage in research and thrive in their academic development," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "I am so proud to know that our commitment to inclusion and our service to students has been recognized by this grant, and I look forward to seeing the progress that Project CREAR will make on behalf of all our students."

Kimberly Sierra-Cajas, director of undergraduate research and inquiry in the Office of Societal Impacts, which is part of the Division of Research, Innovation and Impact, is the principal investigator and project director for the grant. She said the way UArizona students currently move through their academics is a "one-size-fits-all model" that doesn't always take into account "the cultural norms that are predominant in the Latinx culture," such as a strong sense of community and family responsibility.

Latinx is a gender-neutral term for people from Spanish-speaking cultures or of Latin American descent.

"Inherent in this grant is our responsibility to address barriers students experience throughout our institutional structures and environment that lead to disparities in STEM graduation rates," Sierra-Cajas said.

Fewer than half of Latinx UArizona students who start in STEM majors complete their programs within six years, she said. And only a third of Latinx students with STEM majors who receive Pell Grants – federal grants for students with financial need – graduate with a STEM degree in six years.

Only about 42% of Latinx transfer students graduate within three years of transferring, Sierra-Cajas added.

The grant funding comes from the Department of Education's Title III programs, which aim to improve access to higher education for students from Latinx backgrounds or low-income households. UArizona was eligible to receive the grant because of its status as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a federal designation the university received in 2018.

"Project CREAR is one of many efforts that help us bring our HSI designation to life, ensuring that we are broadening access and deepening our capacity to intentionally serve our increasingly diverse student body through asset-based and culturally affirming approaches," said Marla Franco, UArizona assistant vice provost for Hispanic-Serving Institution initiatives.

The AZ HSI Consortium, which Franco founded last year, was recently awarded a $100,000 grant from Helios Education Foundation. The consortium brings together the 22 colleges and universities in Arizona designated as HSIs to advance Latinx student success.

One of Project CREAR's core strategies involves creating Societal Impact Groups – learning communities of first-year and transfer students who take classes together – beginning in fall 2023. These groups foster a sense of community and also provide opportunities to get involved in STEM research that impacts Latinx communities.

The funding will also allow the university to convert some traditional laboratory sections – hands-on lab courses that STEM students attend alongside lecture courses – into more immersive research opportunities.

The university has begun doing this through its CURE Training Institute, which teaches faculty how to create more immersive research experiences. The grant will allow for the conversion of two more lab courses and five other introductory course-based research experiences per year, Sierra-Cajas said. UArizona typically has about 11,000 undergraduates in STEM majors at any given time.

"We just don't have the capacity right now to offer research experiences to thousands of students who actually should be able to have access to those opportunities since studies show a link to increased retention," she said, adding that converting two more lab courses would help address the need.

The grant will also allow more faculty members to participate in the university's Culturally Responsive Curriculum Development Institute, a weeklong summer program that supports participants in implementing more inclusive teaching and learning practices in their courses. The institute helps faculty members to redesign their courses using culturally responsive practices and teaching strategies that incorporate aspects of students' cultural backgrounds into the course curriculum.

The institute now welcomes 20 participants a year and is open to faculty applicants across the university. Participants who complete the program receive a $1,000 stipend.

As part of Project CREAR, the institute will be able to enroll an additional 10 faculty members who teach introductory STEM courses, said Judy Marquez Kiyama, co-principal investigator on the grant, who leads the institute as associate vice provost for faculty development.

"We want to be really intentional about bringing in those faculty who are teaching the courses that are those transitional gateway points for STEM students as they're moving through these STEM pathways," said Kiyama, who is also a professor in the College of Education. Similar training will also be developed for advisers, preceptors and other student support staff who mentor and engage with students.

Brooke Moreno, from the Office of Societal Impacts, will serve as the project manager for Project CREAR. The grant will be administered through a partnership that includes the College of Education, the Division of Research, Innovation and Impact, the Hispanic Serving Institution Initiatives office and the Office of the Provost.

"Providing training and support for our faculty to better understand the cultural backgrounds of students and teach more inclusive courses will lead to greater academic success," said Liesl Folks, UArizona provost and senior vice president for academic affairs. "This grant will strengthen our commitment to expanding access and increasing student success for our diverse population of Wildcats."

Project CREAR is 94.1% funded through the U.S. Department of Education Hispanic-Serving Institutions – Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics and Articulation Programs, which is also known as HSI STEM or Title III, Part F, for the amount of $4,989,496 across a five-year award period. The remaining 5.9% is funded through the University of Arizona for the amount of $313,302 across a five-year period.