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Rice receives part of NSF grant to support low-income master’s candidates


Infographic by Anna Chung

By Ivanka Perez and Talha Arif     10/5/21 10:52pm

Rice has partnered with Jackson State University, Prairie View A&M University and Texas Southern University to receive a National Science Foundation grant of almost $5 million to support scholarships for students pursuing master’s degrees in engineering or related fields. 

60 percent of the grant will support scholarships for students split equally across the four institutions, and 40 percent of the grant will support research, evaluation and project administration.

Rice and the three Historically Black Colleges and Universities received the same amount to support scholarships and project administration, according to Yvette Pearson, former associate dean at Rice for accreditation, assessment and strategic initiatives. Pearson said she led the team in formulating the partnerships and writing the proposal.

Matthew Wettergreen, the principal investigator of the project, said he was struck by a need to make professional master’s programs more accessible when he joined as director of the Global Medical Innovation Master of Bioengineering program in 2020. 

Wettergreen said this program is unique because these programs typically address undergraduate programs.

“This is a revolutionary program investing in talented financial need-based students,” Wettergreen, an associate teaching professor at Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, said. “So we are very excited about the potential impact.”

Eduardo Salas, Kyriacos Zygourakis and Agustina Fernandez-Moya are co-principal investigators for the project, according to Wettergreen. Salas will lead the research component and will investigate how the project brings together stakeholders from different organizational cultures toward achieving a common goal.

According to the NSF grant page, some of the project’s objectives aim to increase the number of low-income students obtaining master’s degrees and entering the U.S. STEM workforce in areas of critical need, and implement and evaluate the impact of the Flexible Internships Research Education model on student success.

This model provides students with experiences that integrate research and internships at both the undergraduate and graduate level, which is facilitated by a partnership with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center, according to the project abstract.

Mack Joyner, director of the computer science professional master’s department, said he thinks the grant will likely increase the accessibility of a master’s degree for students who couldn’t otherwise afford it. 

“There are a lot of students who decide not to pursue a professional master’s because of the cost, and so I think it could have a big impact for those particular students,” Joyner said. “A lot of times, those are minority students who are in a situation where they need to work for various reasons, and so asking them to spend more than $50,000 on a professional master’s degree, for many, they’re not in the position to do that.”

However, Joyner said the grant should also be promoted properly to effectively increase the diversity of the master’s student population. 

“In addition to having the resources set aside, [Rice] also has to do a good job of promoting it, making sure that people are aware of it,” Joyner said.

Wettergreen said he is excited for the program to help launch careers and invest in students. 

“We are going to help over 200 students gain more from their graduate experience through industry internships, research experiences, mentoring and professional development, all with a reduced cost of a graduate degree,” Wettergreen said.

Pearson said each institution will support roughly the same number of students over the next 5 years of the award.

“The scholarships are capped at $10,000 per year per student, so the exact number to be supported will depend on a number of factors, which include the cost of attendance, the individual student’s unmet financial need and the time it takes a student to complete the degree,” Pearson wrote in an email to the Thresher.

Illya Hicks, professor and chair of the computational and applied mathematics department, said he thinks the grant provides a great opportunity for the students involved, as well as the institutions receiving the money.

“One’s talent may be limitless but opportunities are limited,” Hicks wrote in an email to the Thresher. “Hence, it is always good to offer more opportunities to talented individuals.”

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