Nearly $7 Million Dollars in Federal Funding Awarded to SJSU Researchers for STEM Education & Scientific Research

by | Aug 28, 2023 | Academics, Awards and Achievements, Research and Innovation

San José State researchers recently received nearly $7 million in federal funding for STEM education and other science research initiatives. Photo by David Schmitz.

As the fall semester begins, students are just beginning to shift into back to school mode, but many San José State researchers have been working tirelessly all summer, and they have the research grants to prove it. Nearly $7 million in federal funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been awarded to various SJSU researchers. These initiatives include work with STEM education, community paramedics, learning assistants, the U-RISE program and ghost galaxies.

Thanks to U.S. Representative Zoe Lofgren (CA-18), Ranking Member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, along with fellow U.S. Representatives Anna Eshoo (CA-16), Ro Khanna (CA-17), and Jimmy Panetta (CA-19), who advocate for increases to federal research funding year after year, the projects will continue to help students and researchers.

“We are proud that San José State University’s dedication to student success will be further supported,” said Dr. Cynthia Teniente-Matson, President of San José State University. “This NSF and NIH funding will enhance the STEM education opportunities for our students by paving the way for aspiring scientists, engineers, and innovators to push educational boundaries, unravel learning mysteries, and lead the charge towards a brighter future. We thank Representatives Lofgren, Eshoo, Khanna, and Panetta for advocating for federal funding that benefits our students and transforms STEM curricula to equip our students with the skills to shape a world where discovery knows no limits.”  

“Investments in STEM programs are investments in America’s future,” said Reps. Lofgren, Eshoo, Khanna and Panetta in a joint statement. “These projects will diversify the nation’s STEM workforce pipeline, advance our understanding of the universe, and improve STEM education in Silicon Valley, the heart of American innovation and home to thousands of technology companies.”

These projects include:

  • $2.5 Million from the NSF to support the attraction, retention, and graduation of low-income, academically talented, undergraduate students in STEM fields at San José State, overseen by Jorjeta Jetcheva, assistant professor of computer engineering.

“Our goal is to empower low-income students in computer engineering, software engineering, and computer science,” Jetcheva says. The project’s collaborative team of principal investigators (PIs) come from across the SJSU campus, including Carlos Rojas, assistant professor of computer engineering; Yolanda Wiggins, assistant professor of sociology; William Andreopoulos, assistant professor of computer science; and Brianne Gutmann, assistant professor of physics.

As Jetcheva explains, people from all around the world flock to Silicon Valley for career opportunities, but “for young people in many of our local communities these opportunities are out of reach.” She adds, “Many do not have sufficient information about and access to resources to prepare them for the rigors of a college STEM education, role models in STEM careers, a peer support network, or the financial means to focus on their studies without needing to work. We plan to address all of these challenges in order to provide our low-income students with real opportunities to succeed both personally and professionally.”

This recent grant will allow them to do precisely this, beginning with “pre-college summer STEM enrichment programs, academic year research opportunities with faculty with a focus on artificial intelligence, engagement with industry professionals, and peer network and community building.” Students will receive stipends to participate in these programs, as well as up to $15,000 per year in scholarships for up to 5 years to attend SJSU.

Jetcheva concludes, “I’m very excited that my colleagues and I can embark on our journey to make a significant and lasting impact on the lives of low-income students in our communities and beyond. The fact that this is the largest NSF grant awarded to SJSU in over a decade speaks volumes about the significance of this project both for the NSF and SJSU.”

The project will be recruiting its first cohort soon.

  • $1 million from the NSF to support research to improve outcomes for community paramedics and the vulnerable populations they serve, overseen by Miranda Worthen, professor of public health and recreation, and Soma de Bourbon, assistant professor of sociology.
    • (Editor’s note (9/21/2023): This team also just received a Civic Innovation Challenge Award from the NSF, which created this program to “help community-university partnerships combat climate change and improve access to essential resources and services.”)

As Worthen explains, this project uses a “participatory action research approach,” in which the investigators work closely with a civic partner (in this case, the San Francisco Fire Department, or SFFD) to “explore the challenges facing community paramedics and the populations they serve and collaboratively identify strategies that we think will be effective in addressing these challenges.” 

They aim to “prevent and treat moral injury and to enhance equity in community paramedic practice” and are working to implement five distinct interventions “developed based on focus groups with community paramedics” that will “help to build a workplace culture that helps CP (community paramedic) members integrate their distressing experiences and be more resilient” as well as “improve data quality to evaluate equity in client services and outcomes.” 

Worthen described herself as “excited” by the grant, and her co-PI de Bourbon is equally enthusiastic. “I’m overjoyed that I’m able to continue to work with Miranda,” she says, “and I’m also proud that NSF acknowledged the merits of our research and the strong partnership with SFFD.”

“This is a big, innovative project and while I’m confident in our partners, approach, and strategy, I know we’ve taken on a major challenge,” Worthen acknowledges. “My colleague at SFFD texted me saying, ‘I’m over the moon! Now we get to do this project!’ and I feel like his enthusiasm and the excitement of our partners makes me want to get started right away. That’s what I love about partnerships.”

  • $1.178 million from the NSF to explore how partnerships between STEM faculty and undergraduate learning assistants (LAs) can enable sustainable institutional and classroom transformation, overseen by Cassandra Paul, professor of physics & astronomy and science education.

This work is a continuation of an ongoing project, which examines how undergraduate learning assistants (LAs) (specially trained undergraduates who assist with facilitating student discussions in the classroom) can work with faculty who are implementing active learning techniques. 

As Paul explains, “We are interested in the role that the LA model plays in classroom changes on a larger scale – at the level of the college or the university itself. The big picture goal is to understand the role that LAs have as ‘agents of change’ in the classroom and how the LA model can support institutional change (large-scale pedagogical changes at the university level). We plan to use our results to improve the LA model here at SJSU, and at SFSU and CalPoly, the other two CSU campuses involved in the project.”

The project, which has grown out of the previous CREATE Award team, is exciting for the whole team. “Learning assistants are an absolute joy to work with, and they have really valuable insight into what is happening in the classroom in real time,” Paul says. “They are an excellent bridge between instructors and students. I’m excited to see how different faculty and LA pairs navigate this space together.”

Paul says a “large portion of their funds” will support hiring more LAs for their Peer Connections program, as well as continuing their research into LA-instructor partnerships. She adds, “I am also really looking forward to continuing to work with my SJSU Co-PIs, Gina Quan and Resa Kelly, and the larger team of collaborators.”

Editor’s note: Paul also recently published an article in the journal “Physical Review Physics Education Research” entitled “Attributing Equity Gaps to Course Structure in Introductory Physics,” which further explores questions of STEM education.

  • $1.75 million over 5 years from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support the Undergraduate Research Training Initiative for Student Enhancement (U-RISE) program, which aims to help support underrepresented undergraduate students interested in pursuing a career in biomedical sciences, overseen by Cleber Ouverney, professor of microbiology and co-investigator Alberto Rascon, associate professor of chemistry.

This program is an outgrowth of the MARC program (Maximizing Access to Research Careers) which was restructured into U-RISE, with its primary goal of “increasing the proportion of underrepresented individuals carrying our biomedical research at the highest levels in the country,” as Ouverney states. 

The program began at SJSU this summer, with an outreach to increase faculty awareness of the program, and it is now recruiting the first group of students. Students who receive the U-RISE award will be paid a monthly stipend for two years to help them reduce work hours and to focus on research. 

They are expected to work in a research lab for an average of 20 hours per week during the semester and full time during the summer, and will also participate in a weekly seminar to receive skills training. In their second summer, students travel to a research intensive institution for 8-10 weeks of training, and they must apply to graduate programs in biomedical sciences the fall before they graduate. 

Ouverney encourages students who are interested in participating in research and who are planning to carry out a career in biomedical sciences to apply to the program and reach out to him directly.

“We couldn’t be happier with the award announcement,” he says. “Many people on campus played a crucial role in getting this grant off the ground, including the dean’s office of the College of Science, the Office of Research, the Research Foundation, the Office of the Provost, and research faculty in STEM in multiple departments and colleges.

“Being funded by NIH is a challenge overall and we all feel humble, but extremely fortunate to receive such support. At the end of the day, this financial support is to help students advance in their career goals. We are looking forward to making this a successful program for years to come.” 

  • $378,953 from the NSF to study the formation and properties of ultra-diffuse galaxies, overseen by Aaron Romanowsky, professor of physics and astronomy.

Ultra-diffuse galaxies, or “ghost” galaxies, as Romanowsky explains, have been hard to detect until recent years. “For every giant spiral galaxy like our own Milky Way, there are myriads of smaller dwarf galaxies,” he says.  

“Some of these dwarfs are mysterious, very faint yet very large. The project uses powerful astronomical instruments, such as the Keck and Hubble Space Telescopes, to analyze these galaxies in detail and understand how they formed. We will determine how old they are and how much dark matter they contain.”

This specific grant will help Romanowsky and his colleagues “observe with the telescopes, analyze data, and present results at professional conferences.”  Romanowsky calls the grant news “very encouraging” and adds that student participation was crucial to this award. 

“In fact,” he says, “the discovery of a unique galaxy by SJSU student Enrique Cabrera, ’19 Physics, was part of the background material that motivated the grant.” He’s also happy that the grant will help provide more financial assistance for students. 

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