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STEM program promotes diversity at UMD

Summer college students on board the Blue Heron research vessel take in harbor sights as they head for the Aerial Lift Bridge and out to explore Lake Superior's waters. The students are from under-represented groups pursuing a STEM degree. The afternoon aboard the Blue Heron is part of a 5-day STEM bootcamp. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Doug Ricketts, marine superintendent for the Blue Heron research vessel, explains how a water sampling device works to a group of college students on board the Blue Heron Friday afternoon. Each container can hold a separate sample from a particular depth. The students spent the afternoon gathering and examining mud and water samples. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 3
Charles Keenan, age 2, of Duluth and his grandmother Marianne Schroeder of Lake Elmo welcome students aboard the Blue Heron returning from a day of exploration on Lake Superior. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 3

Devin Wahlberg has always enjoyed problem solving. His love affair with math carried him through high school and still sticks with him as he enters college.

So when he got an email after freshman orientation inviting him to join the University of Minnesota Duluth's Summer Math Prep Program, choosing to tackle the challenge wasn't a hard decision.

"It's pretty fun; you get to know a lot of people and meet more people," Wahlberg said. "It really helps with the nerves of college. You get more connections and learn more about the school than you would at an orientation."

The summer program, established by Rachel Breckenridge in 2013, is designed to assist students from under-represented demographics interested in pursuing a career in the STEM field. People of color, first-generation college students and women are picked to be part of the program.

"Those students face more adversity to achieving that goal," said Breckenridge, a math and statistics professor. "I've looked at the research and what kinds of supports that students would need who are interested and come from these under-represented groups."

The STEM field, which includes careers in science, technology, engineering and math, has historically been a difficult profession for minorities and women to get into. Women make up 32 percent of the Swenson College of Science and Engineering; racial minorities make up 12 percent.

Breckenridge's program is designed to improve those numbers by building support systems for students who fall in those categories. The summer months include introductory-level math classes, connecting students with similar backgrounds and a five-day STEM boot camp that familiarizes kids with the campus and introduces them to relevant professions in the field.

"We spent one day doing computers, and before that, it was geology," Wahlberg said. "It's just a good way to understand what you want to go into and open other fields you're interested in."

Breckenridge says the No. 1 predictor of success for any STEM major is how they do in their first calculus course. Many students she targets may not remember the knowledge needed to excel in the course, which is why she teaches introductory math courses for the students in the program.

"Part of my program is easing that transition," Breckenridge said, "And, a lot of students will forget math over the summer or sometimes don't take it their senior year, so it's pretty tough to remember all of that."

A typical summer in the program is made up of 80 students. While only 20 of them attend the five-day camp, about 45 of them take some variation of the math classes online.

Breckenridge said she's wanted to help foster minority and female interest in the STEM field long before she started the program. Before she was a UMD college instructor, she taught math at Iroquois Junior Senior High School in Pennsylvania and at the Fond du Lac reservation. She's also been part a group for 10 years that hosts a Native American science and math camp.

"I was really frustrated because I love my job, but I felt like there were these students falling through the cracks," Breckenridge said, "and, from being a high school teacher, I knew some of the reasons why."

The first year was tough, she said. While she had experience writing and applying for grants previously, acquiring the funds wasn't easy. Compounding the challenge was finding mentors to assist in helping the students in the program.

Now in the fifth year of the program, that's no longer a problem.

"I'm definitely a really big role model for all the students, and one thing I like is having students look up to me because I'm a minority in the STEM field," said Shane Johannsen, a mentor with the program. "To see someone like me look and think 'OK, look at all the great things Shane has been doing, why can't we do that or how can we do that?'"

Johannsen is a senior biology major. While he never participated in the summer program, he fit the mold of incoming students in a similar situation. Neither of his parents went to college, and he's of Filipino-caucasian descent.

"I'm a really confident person and always wanting to try new experiences and take on leadership roles, but there's been times where, especially at this university where I really suppressed myself," Johannsen said, "Because of my environment I'm in or the people I'm around and feeling like I'm left out based on my skin color."

"That's something I've always tried to overcome and I want other people to overcome that, too, because I don't want people to have the same feeling," he said.

It's not just anecdotal evidence Breckenridge can point to when it comes to the program's success. The typical first-to-second year retention rate for ethnic minorities is 70 percent. It's even lower for women, at 66 percent.

The underrepresented students who go through her program far exceed those numbers, showing a 95 percent retention rate. Along with that growth, Breckenridge has also just seen off the original class, who graduated last May.

"That was huge," she said. "Professionally, it's been the hardest thing I've ever done. Hopefully it'll get easier with those retention numbers. The program is finally hitting enough momentum to show it's successful."

Breckenridge originally had to get money from outside sources to fund the summer boot camp and her salary to teach the introductory math classes. Now, the university is almost entirely fronting the $24,000 needed to run it.

"The reason why a program like this isn't going away anytime soon is simply because of the leadership," Johannsen said. "Rachel, she's probably one of the most caring compassionate woman I've ever seen and I think it's really good especially for women in STEM. When you find a person that's that motivated towards a mission, that's how you succeed."