Before the start of the fall semester, several new West Virginia University students are already asking research questions and trying to answer them with guidance from WVU scientists while, in certain cases, getting their feet wet.
Through July 30, WVU’s Office of Undergraduate Research is hosting a Summer Immersion Experience with support from the First2 Network, offering a residential, immersive STEM research experience with internships specifically for first-generation and underrepresented first-year students from rural areas.
The wet feet part was not a problem for one of the participants, Tyler Coulter, a Charleston resident and graduate of Riverside High School, as he was working to collect data along a stream in the West Run Watershed.
“I fish a lot, so I’m used to it,” Coulter said after climbing out of the water in high weeds on a sticky day to compare water quality findings with Easton Cahill, a fellow incoming first-year student from Bridgeport.
“I was just looking for any opportunity to do research and I heard about First2 Network,” Coulter said. He and Cahill are two of 15 students spending two weeks on campus, one of eight participating Summer Immersion Experience sites in West Virginia this year.
Serving as a student mentor for Coulter and Cahill is Jordan Means from Elkview, now a junior at WVU majoring in immunology and medical microbiology. She started her college career with the Summer Immersion Experience in 2019 soon after graduating from Capital High School.
“I struggled a lot because I was a first-generation college student,” Means, one of four student mentors, said. “Now that I’ve figured it out, I want to make sure that I bring the ladder down to other students to help them along the process.”
After a fully virtual experience last summer due to COVID-19, this year’s summer research projects involve hands-on instruction.
Coulter, Cahill and Means make up the team working to study “Land Use Impacts on Water Quality,” what is an introduction to hydrology with Jason Hubbart, professor and director of the Institute of Water Security and Science in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, and Kaylyn Gootman, a post-doctoral research associate.
For the team, each day includes a field trip to a local stream or river site, collection of water quality data and lessons in estimation of streamflow before lab work focused on analyzing data in preparation for a final presentation on the effects of development on water quality at the end of the two weeks.
“You can read about something, but actually doing something is how I like to learn,” Gootman said. “They need to get their boots, get out in the field and collect the data that will tell that story.”
Other research projects include neuroscience studies with Sadie Bergeron from the Department of Biology, metal-catalyzed coupling reactions with Jessica Hoover from the C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry and biometrics under Jeremy Dawson from the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering.
“To some students, the college environment is unfamiliar and scary. Giving them a chance to experience college life without being graded or assessed helps them overcome their fears and primes them for success from day one,” Michelle Richards-Babb, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research, said.
“We expect that they will become familiar with the university environment, knowledgeable about its resources and comfortable speaking with faculty and staff. In addition, they will have built a cohort of like-minded students who are interested in STEM, are intent on succeeding in college and facilitate and celebrate each other’s successes.”
The First2 Network, with funding from the National Science Foundation, started as a pilot project in 2016 to address STEM student success since data at the time showed only about 30 percent of graduating high school students who declared STEM majors in college went on to graduate with STEM degrees.
The Summer Immersion Experience is part of that larger effort.
At WVU, mentors stay with students on campus to oversee research activities and plan recreational activities in Morgantown.
Presentations are scheduled dealing with responsible research conduct, resume building and mental health resources. Participants have dinners with undergraduate research staff, instructors for first-year and second-year STEM courses and alumni.
“Hopefully, they’re inspired to keep in touch. A big part of this is having that STEM contact early and often,” Gootman said of the participants who, in her view, were getting a head start on STEM careers like hers in hydrology.
“As I move through my career, I want education and outreach and building that next generation of scientists to be at the forefront of what I do.”
For Means, the student mentor, such connectedness was key.
“As first-generation college students, we are very resilient,” Means said. “I hope the students leave with a community that they know they can come back to during college.”
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