Grounding for Success

Wednesday, August 20, 2014
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Ten minutes after the new Connect STEM students made their introductions around the lab tables in a classroom at the University of New Hampshire (UNH), they were hiking into the heart of College Woods. Lead by co-instructors Dr. Jennifer Purrenhage and Dr. Kim Babbitt the students began their first day of class by investigating the local forest ecology, turning over logs and locating woodland animals like the Red-backed salamander and American Toad. Additionally, they pondered and wrote down twenty questions about the natural world to jump start the process of using the scientific method of observation and research prior to formulating and testing their hypotheses.

Jen Purrenhage teaches in the field.These incoming freshmen are enrolled in the Scientific Research Exploration mini-course at UNH’s College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (COLSA). The two-week course is designed to support individuals, many of whom are multicultural, low income, first generation students, accepted into the competitive Connect STEM program as they make the challenging transition from high school to college. “Central to what we are trying to do is provide the excitement of project-based science and, once there is that excitement, show students how biology, chemistry and mathematics supply the tools for solving the problems raised in the project,” says Judy Spiller, Associate Provost for Academic Achievement. “Along the way, students build a network of peers, faculty, and staff to support them during the first semester.”

Once a first-generation, low-income student herself, COLSA’s Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Professor of Natural Resources Dr. Babbitt emphasizes her deep commitment to providing these unique opportunities to incoming freshmen. “Connect STEM gives students a sense of grounding, reinforcing that they will be successful,” says Babbitt. “Freshman year can be tough with chemistry, math, biology, and lots of research. This program gives students the confidence to keep working through their challenges.”

The Connect STEM program is designed to support the academic, professional, and cultural development of underrepresented students with an ultimate objective of increasing retention and graduation rates at UNH. Additionally, a yearlong mentor/mentee partnership helps to engage students with their coursework, provides them with professional development through networking and internships, encourages them to explore future employment opportunities, and prepares them for graduate and professional education. Programming offered throughout the year enriches the participants’ connection to the UNH community and its academic life. “The Connect STEM students become a cohort of peers, each adjusting to and becoming more comfortable with the educational demands of college life,” says Babbitt. “In addition to all that, it helps for them to know somebody the first time they go to the dining hall.”

Along with exploring woodland ecology, the students will have the opportunity to get their feet wet in marine biology … nine miles out in the Atlantic Ocean. After a day of learning about invasive crabs with guest lecturer and Professor of Biology Jim Haney, the students will spend a day in the field conducting research at the Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island. As an important part of the Connect STEM program, such field studies build upon the students’ newfound knowledge of the invasive crab population at the Isles of Shoals as they collect specimens for further research.

“Nonnative crab species have shown up in some areas on the Isles of Shoals. We’ll examine their relative abundances and habitat characteristics at different sites in the intertidal zone, catch specimens, sex them, check if the females are gravid, and bring the data back to the classroom for analysis,” says Purrenhage, Lecturer in Environmental Conservation and Sustainability for COLSA’s Department of Natural Resources and the Environment. After conducting field research, the students will learn how to analyze the data and present their findings. “They engage in the scientific process, thinking, acting, and stepping into the role of a scientist during the two weeks,” says Purrenhage. “The students look at the big issues, examining biases and uncertainty, learning new terminology, and formulating and testing hypotheses related to biological invasions, community ecology, climate change, and more.”

Students attending the Connect STEM program have come from as far away as Puerto Rico for the opportunity to become grounded in the hands-on undergraduate research for which UNH is renowned. Their successful completion of the Scientific Research Exploration course will provide them with the time and instruction to hone their research skills as well as a chance to develop the support network that enhances their first semester achievement. Since some of the students have entered the University with undeclared majors and a strong inclination to study science, successful grounding in the Connect STEM program will improve their chances of being admitted to the department of their choice.

For the first time this year, the Connect Office and the UNH TRIO SSS program are co-sponsoring and coordinating the Connect program. As part of the TRIO component, students who meet income eligibility can receive a $1,000 scholarship upon successful completion of the Connect/TRIO Scholars program. For more information on the Connect STEM program, please see