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Grant supports academically-talented engineering students from low-income backgrounds

Professor Darabi

The University of Illinois Chicago College of Engineering has received a grant to provide scholarships, mentoring and internship opportunities to academically-talented, low-income engineering undergraduates. The goal of the scholarship program is to have students graduate into STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) advanced degree programs or secure jobs in STEM fields within six months of leaving UIC.

The $975,000 National Science Foundation grant will support a total of 30 incoming freshmen engineering students who start in either fall 2018 or fall 2019. Students from low-income households will be encouraged to apply for the scholarship program based on their high school grades and ACT or SAT scores.

“There’s nothing more important to the College of Engineering than student success, and engineering and computer science education is an economic escalator for students coming from challenging economic backgrounds,” said Peter Nelson, professor of computer science and dean of the UIC College of Engineering. “Our programs, including this new one sponsored by the National Science Foundation, provide a clear path to the upper middle-class and beyond for our students.”

The UIC College of Engineering designed the new program in response to growing evidence suggesting that students from low-income backgrounds have lower graduation rates and are less likely to find jobs in their respective fields than their peers from higher-income families. “Lots of research shows that college success is dependent, in large part, on family income,” said Houshang Darabi, associate professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and director of undergraduate studies in the UIC College of Engineering.

“Students who are the first in their families to go to college don’t have parents that can talk to them about what it’s like going to college to prepare them for the experience, and those parents are also often at a loss when it comes to providing guidance on finding a job in their child’s chosen field,” said Darabi, who is also the principal investigator on the grant. “This puts these students at a real disadvantage, and the goal of this new scholarship program is to try to reduce the disparities in graduation rates and job placements between our students from high- and low-income backgrounds.”

In addition to providing scholarships toward tuition estimated to average $5,000 per student, scholars selected for the program will participate in activities in the summer before their first fall semester at UIC. In the summer bridge program, scholars will be matched with a student and a faculty mentor who will provide academic guidance, as well as an industry mentor who will provide career guidance. Scholars will also participate in paid summer internships either at a UIC engineering lab, or in one of more than 100 Chicago area companies.

“These internships are in addition to the UIC College of Engineering Guaranteed Paid Internship Program offered to every incoming freshman or transfer student,” Darabi said.

In their sophomore and junior years, scholars will engage in service learning projects. “These projects focus the students on solving community problems using engineering concepts,” said Darabi. “The goal of the service learning projects is to help build up each scholar’s sense of identity as an engineer and cement the idea in them that engineers are people who have a lot to contribute towards improving the day-to-day lives of people. This is a very important concept for them to have. It also goes a long way towards improving graduation rates and the likelihood that these scholars will secure jobs in their chosen fields.”

Darabi will closely monitor the program, and hopes that if it is successful, it can be made available to more students going forward.

Nelson, Jeremiah Abiade, Ludwig C. Nitsche and Renata Revelo Alonso in the UIC College of Engineering are co-investigators on the grant.