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La Sierra University STEM Summer Program Shepherds New Students, Plans Expansion

The two-week program was launched as a pilot in August 2021.

La Sierra STEM students in classroom

Freshmen take a science class during last summer's STEM Bridge program. Photo provided by La Sierra University

Freshman biology major Daphne Prakash was nervous earlier this year as she contemplated entering college and all of its unknowns. Then an opportunity arose that seemed like a good way to ease through the transition — summer STEM Bridge at La Sierra University where she had enrolled.

Funded by a 2019 Guided Pathways to Success federal Title V grant, the program launched as a pilot last August for incoming first-year students interested in careers in STEM — science, technology, engineering or math fields. The two-week intensive gives freshmen a training platform and opportunities ahead of the regular academic year to learn and gain insights and develop skills necessary for STEM careers. Through a collaboration with the Zapara School of Business’ Freight Farm project, students in the inaugural STEM Bridge this summer learned science and technology as well as ways of climate change mitigation through hydroponics agriculture. They learned the particulars of high-tech farming inside an environmentally controlled shipping container where lettuce and other crops grow with nutrient-rich water and special lighting.

Freshmen in STEM Bridge were also introduced to university faculty, resources and processes, and the layout of the campus before fall quarter began. 

first year STEM students at La Sierra University

La Sierra first-year students (left to right) Divinity Monge, Nicole Rivera, Melanie Zepeda, Sungyoung Choi and Daphne Prakash display their certificates of completion of STEM Bridge 2021. Photo provided by La Sierra University 

“Fighting climate change is something I’m really passionate about, and so I was really drawn in by the Freight Farm and the sustainable agriculture aspect of the program,” Prakash said. “I felt a lot better about starting school because of the relationships I got to make. Not only did we get to learn about STEM and the science behind the Freight Farm, we also went over some skills that would be necessary for college, like learning how to navigate Blackboard or searching the university’s library database. Each one of us also got a mini hydroponics kit to set up at home.” 

She noted that involvement in the summer intensive also “further cemented” her interests in a STEM career and raised her confidence in her ability to handle college and go after the career path of her choice, possibly in the arena of public health. 

The Title V-funded Guided Pathways to Success program in addition to STEM Bridge also offers financial literacy, academic support through peer-led learning, and summer research opportunities. The heart of the program is a comprehensive support system for students as they progress through their degree programs, one track tailored for community college transfers and another for freshmen. The Guided Pathways initiative is funded by a $3 million, five-year Title V grant received in October 2019 from the U.S. Department of Education. 

The goal of the grant is to increase access to science, technology, engineering and mathematics degrees and career opportunities for underrepresented students across the Inland Empire. It dovetails with another $3 million Title V grant the university received in October 2021 toward increasing the numbers of K-12 STEM teachers in the region. 

During summer 2022, the STEM Bridge program anticipates expanding to include community college transfer students, said Dr. Marvin Payne, director of Title V Programs at La Sierra University. “We’re putting a lot of resources from our grants and to help [students] early. If we intervene and make sure they do well, then they’re going to keep doing well all along. We believe that students shouldn't be limited by barriers to success because of their circumstances. Our programs are helping to break down the barriers.”