National Science Foundation gives further nod to UW-Platteville's STEM agenda; funds $900,000 grant for STEM center

August 30, 2012

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Another tip of the hat came from the National Science Foundation this month as nearly a million dollars in funding was granted to the University of Wisconsin-Platteville for the creation of a College of Engineering, Mathematics and Science Recruitment and Retention Center.

This grant comes on the heels of numerous NSF grants recently provided to UW-Platteville, a historic leader in the UW System in regards to science, technology, engineering and math education at the undergraduate level. The College of EMS Recruitment and Retention Center will work collaboratively with campus resources to help bring qualified STEM degree-seeking students to campus and to provide tailored support to help students get from admission to graduation quickly and find job placements.

“I am grateful to the leadership in the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Science for creating this exceptional opportunity for our campus and for the state of Wisconsin,” said UW-Platteville Chancellor Dennis J. Shields. “We’ve long been working to provide the state with highly qualified graduates in key areas of need, and this grant from the National Science Foundation affirms that what we’re doing – educating the next generations of engineers, scientists and critical 360-degree thinkers – is not only good for the state, but also for the nation.”

According to an August 2012 report by the Congressional Research Service report for Congress, many leaders in industry, academia and the political arena agree that the United States STEM education shortcomings have contributed or will soon contribute to national science and engineering workforce shortages, and that this labor shortage has diminished U.S. global economic competitiveness.

“Science, technology, engineering and math – the STEM fields are where the future economy is going,” said Dr. Christina Curras, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UW-Platteville and co-author of the grant. “If we don’t develop the STEM disciplines here, then we are going to fall further behind in the world economy.”

The grant team hopes to increase the number of STEM degrees awarded at UW-Platteville by over 20 percent by the end of this funding. Specifically, the number of women graduates will be increased by at least 30 percent and the number of underrepresented minority graduates will be increased by at least 50 percent in the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Science by the end of the grant cycle.

According to Tony Evers, state superintendent, he and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction also recognize the importance of elevating STEM fields, linking their educational relevance to both the state’s economic growth and daily living.

“I want to emphasize that STEM education includes not only studies in each of the independent STEM subjects, but also opportunities to integrate and apply STEM learning across many disciplines,” said Evers. “If STEM education is to make an impact on our economy, we need to link it to the personal aspirations of all students – whether artists or scientists or entrepreneurs – and we need to make it powerful enough to transform communities and improve our quality of life.”

That importance, according to Curras, is as broad sweeping as the use of e-mail and other daily technologies of which we often take advantage. A greater STEM literacy is what this country needs, from the everyday Joe to policy makers in Washington, D.C.

“It’s crucial that we not only get more people moving forward with intensive STEM degrees, but also that other people get a better feel for STEM and can converse about science and technology adequately, because technology is spreading everywhere,” said Curras. “The response we got from the NSF was very positive and supportive in saying that UW-Platteville is a campus that can succeed. They wouldn’t have given this kind of grant to a campus that had no track record of being successful so it was a kind of affirmation of what we can do and have done.”

UW-Platteville, which has long been engaged in educational outreach for the general public, is also leveraging the new STEM center to help better educate people on what STEM fields actually are. In a study by the National Academy of Engineering about the public perception of engineers, research pointed to the fact that messaging thus far has been ineffective in attracting young people to such fields. The study was sponsored by the NSF because they too recognize the need for a greater national STEM literacy.

“We want to have one place where anyone from the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Science who’s going to be doing any outreach to further the region’s STEM literacy can go to get the same materials,” said Tammy Salmon-Stephens, director of the Women in EMS and STEM Scholars programs at UW-Platteville and co-author of the grant. “That NAE study came out with a lot of tested messages to strengthen how people understand what STEM fields really are, and this grant will impact that in terms of how our faculty, staff and students do outreach and the messages they are sending.”

Immediate goals for the grant team include establishing the needed infrastructure on campus to help move the project forward, hiring a director for the program to spearhead this priority initiative, and get groundwork in place for next fall so that a strong mentor and tutoring base is immediately available.

“We are one of the best-kept secrets in terms of our STEM graduates,” said Salmon-Stephens. “This grant helps people place us on the map, especially for industries in the region. Companies are highly interested in our STEM Scholars because those students are getting internships and co-ops as freshmen and sophomores because companies want to know our students and have them as a part of their staff. This program will only further the reputation of our great STEM programs.”

Also noted in the congressional report are the consistent achievement gaps by race, ethnicity and gender in test scores, degree attainment and employment seen in a wide variety of STEM data. One example noted in the report is the 20-point gap between average scores of white students and their black and Hispanic counterparts in 2011 4th and 8th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress math assessments. In higher education, only 18.5 percent of engineering bachelor’s degrees went to women in 2008.

“A large percentage of STEM professionals in Wisconsin and nationally are white men. Even in Middle Eastern countries, women have a higher percentage of STEM degrees than men, so we need to do something about how our culture promotes and encourages women and underrepresented people to be a part of STEM fields,” said Salmon-Stephens. “Diversity affects the bottom line financially and it’s the right thing to do. When you bring people together from different backgrounds, solutions meet the needs of the entire population and they generate a unique variety of ideas.”

According to Curras, one of the reasons the university has been so successful is because of the groundwork others have laid through other grants from the NSF, notably the STEM Scholars program, and many other areas. Curras also mentioned Dr. David Kunz, who is working with the College of Menominee Nation in Keshena, Wis., on another NSF grant; Dr. Irfan Ul-Haq and the work he’s doing with Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation; Dr. Philip Parker, Dr. Matt Roberts, and the list goes on.

“Having a strong mix of people is critical in this grant’s success,” said Salmon-Stephens. “Having Christina and Scott Summers involved is really important because they have that view as a faculty member, having Dean Hudson as an administrator can help us with some of the upper-level types of agreements that need to happen with this grant, and having programs like STEM Scholars and Women in EMS brings it all together.

“There are a lot of faculty in the College of EMS that we’ve worked with personally who are involved in a lot of different things to support students and help them be successful,” said Salmon-Stephens. “We’re a great team. Christina, Scott and I couldn’t have sat in an office and done this without working with people across campus.”

The grant team also was very thankful to Kathy Lomax and the helpful staff of the Office of Sponsored Programs/New Ventures for their help in the grant and specifically budgeting.

Contact: Tammy Salmon-Stephens, Director, Women in Engineering, Math and Science Program at UW-Platteville, (608) 342-1563,; Christina Curras, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UW-Platteville, (608) 342-6181,

Written by: Ian Clark, UW-Platteville University Information and Communications, (608) 342-1194,


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