New NSF-funded program will support math and physics students.
Several George Washington University math and physics professors have been awarded a five-year, $614,400 grant from the National Science Foundation to start a program to support undergraduate mathematics and physics students.
The program will be called the Joint Undergraduate Mathematics and Physics Scholarships (JUMP), said Yongwu Rong, professor of mathematics and chairman of the mathematics department, who is the principal investigator for the grant. Other faculty co-PIs include Associate Professor Gerald Feldman and Professor Larry Medsker of the physics department and Associate Professor Svetlana Roudenko and Professor Daniel Ullman of the mathematics department.
The program will provide scholarships and support for talented students who demonstrate financial need and who major in mathematics or physics, Dr. Rong said. He and his colleagues will target first-year students, who will apply for the program in the spring of freshman year, and the selected students will receive support for the sophomore though senior years. In addition to the monetary awards, the program will provide a cohort experience in which the students learn and work together with faculty mentors. It will also include an undergraduate research component.
“The idea behind this grant is to train more of our students in mathematics and physics and to provide for the future workforce in the STEM fields, which is a national need,” Dr. Rong said. STEM is an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Each cohort will have about 10 students, Dr. Rong said. The program will include a JUMP seminar about research methods that the cohort students enroll in together, and a variety of courses that are of interest to both physics and math students.
“Scientifically, it makes a lot of sense to collaborate. Physics requires a lot of math, and math benefits from new ideas in physics. Our faculty already collaborate—for example, our collaboration on biological networks has led to a $1.2 million NSF grant," he said.
Dr. Feldman said one of the major challenges to increasing the national number of STEM graduates is a high attrition level in the first two years of college. Traditionally, at many institutions, introductory mathematics and physics classes include many large lecture courses, and students have to wait until the third or fourth year to get opportunities to work closely with faculty or on research.
GW has already worked to change this model with its SCALE-UP program, in which all introductory physics students now work collaboratively in small groups, sitting together at round tables and working with faulty members who serve more as coaches than lecturers. The JUMP program will continue on this path of making mathematics and physics more appealing for entering students.
“Out of incoming students who cite an interest in STEM fields, only about 40 percent actually finish college with a STEM degree,” Dr. Feldman said. “A lot people get lost in the pipeline. With this program, we’re going to have an organized cohort and build community from the start.”
Because JUMP students will hear about research opportunities and talk with faculty in their very first JUMP seminar, they won’t be “wandering the halls as juniors or seniors, knocking on doors and trying to meet faculty,” Dr. Feldman said. “They will already be involved with undergraduate research.”
Although demonstration of financial need is an important component of the JUMP scholarships, Dr. Feldman said other interested students who don’t demonstrate need would still be welcome to apply to take part in the cohort program and the JUMP seminars.
In addition to the research opportunities, Dr. Rong said the program will match interested students with career mentors from government agencies or industry. A number of GW alumni have already expressed interest in serving as mentors. Because some math and physics students don’t want academic careers, it’s important to provide opportunities that match their interests, he said.
And though the NSF grant is for five years, Dr. Rong said he expects it to spur change that will last much longer.
“We hope this program will strengthen the mentoring infrastructure for math and physics and we can use this model to do the same thing for STEM in general,” he said. “We hope this has a lasting impact long beyond five years.”