National Science Foundation grant to support Hispanic biology majors at Bloomfield College

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Bloomfield College was recently awarded a National Science Foundation grant in the amount of $199,989 for its student academic support project “Interventions to Improve Academic Performance of Biology Majors at Bloomfield College.”

“The immediate goal of this program is to support our first-year biology majors to succeed in their first year of college, so they are better prepared to successfully graduate and join a STEM workforce that is lacking in representation from professionals of Hispanic origin,” said Tammy A. Castro, Bloomfield College professor of biology and grant principal investigator.

According to Castro, the planned interventions are hypothesized to lead to measurable increases in the academic performance of first-year biology majors. Castro and her team will support Bloomfield biology students in three key areas: academic engagement and determination; interpersonal relations; and psychological well-being, which will include sense of belonging, self-efficacy in general and self-efficacy in biology.

Specifically, incoming biology students in the program will participate in a weeklong intensive summer enrichment program to get a jumpstart on the first course in the biology curriculum. They will receive academic and social support via a peer coaching and tutoring program coordinated by a faculty member and led by trained peer coaches who are sophomore and junior biology majors. They will also participate in interdisciplinary, course-based, undergraduate research experiences designed as laboratory modules to further develop confidence in their ability to perform basic scientific procedures, see themselves as scientists, and increase their sense of belonging at the college and to the wider scientific community.

“Although the project focus of this NSF grant is Hispanic students, all of our first-year biology students, a majority of which are black or African American, will also be invited to participate in the program,” said Michael A. Palladino, vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty. “Research shows that engaging underrepresented students in an original research experience can significantly increase their retention, persistence and graduation rates. The anticipated increased retention — and ultimately the graduation of Hispanic students and other minorities — will contribute to the number of minority scientists entering the workforce.”

To prepare for submitting the NSF grant proposal, Castro participated in the NSF Semillas Mentored Grantsmanship Program, which mentors faculty toward writing successful proposals for the NSF Hispanic-Serving Institutions Program. 

“An important aspect of this project is our collaboration with the Council on Undergraduate Research to provide faculty development for best practices in undergraduate research,” said Palladino, who is a former member of the CUR executive board and has served as chairperson of its biology division. “I first met Dr. Castro about 15 years ago when I was facilitating a CUR faculty development workshop when she was a new faculty member. Now that our paths have crossed again at Bloomfield College, it is very gratifying to be in a position to support Dr. Castro’s progression as a role model for our students.”

According to the Pew Research Center, black people and Hispanics are underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math jobs relative to their presence in the overall U.S. workforce, particularly among workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher. Hispanic individuals, it reported, comprise 17 percent of the U.S. workforce overall but only 8 percent of the STEM workforce.

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