NSF grant bolsters Nelson Institute program supporting STEM students with financial need

November 2, 2016

The Nelson Institute’s Community Environmental Scholars Program (CESP) was recently awarded nearly $1 million to continue its mission in supporting, educating and graduating students in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

The five-year grant will provide two-year scholarships of $8,000 for 36 students in CESP, a service-learning-oriented, need-based scholarship program that receives support from both state and federal agencies. To qualify, students must be enrolled in a STEM major along with either the environmental studies major or certificate.

CESP, now in its sixth year, bridges a diverse range of students by combining their STEM studies with on-the-ground engagement around environmental matters.

“It brings in students who want to make a connection with the community and environmental issues, but wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do so in their STEM work without the support we’re providing,” says Rob Beattie, CESP co-director and a faculty associate of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, which administers the program.

“It’s a measure of NSF’s
faith in the approach that
we’ve taken, connecting
students to the community
as a way of building a cohort
experience and building
success for the students.”

“Students are joined by their interest in community engagement, rather than their specific discipline,” he continues. “That means they get to meet people they never would have met otherwise.”

Cathy Middlecamp, a professor of environmental studies who also co-directs CESP, echoes the value of this merging of interests.

“We shepherd students from many STEM disciplines – engineering, conservation biology, horticulture, biochemistry, environmental science, and more,” she says. “By doing so, it allows for interactions between the different STEM disciplines in a way that might not happen otherwise on campus.”

This is the second major NSF award CESP has received. The program received the initial NSF S-STEM grant in 2012, the first ever awarded to UW-Madison.

The new grant includes a research component spearheaded by Nelson Institute Associate Professor Adrian Treves, as well as Nick Balster, an associate professor of soil science and Nelson Institute faculty affiliate, and Erica Halverson, an associate professor with the School of Education. Over the next five years, the researchers will compare the performance of CESP students to similar students in environmental studies and STEM fields who aren’t enrolled in a cohort-based class, to determine how well CESP students perform in comparison. 

Beattie sees the renewed support as a sign that the program is on the right track.

“It’s a measure of NSF’s faith in the approach that we’ve taken, connecting students to the community as a way of building a cohort experience and building success for the students,” he says.

Adds Middlecamp, “Just giving a student a scholarship isn’t enough. While the money is useful for students, the bigger potential is untapped if at the same time you don’t create a community to go with it.”

The grant, which started October 1, will run through September 30, 2021.

The CESP Scholarships for Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics (CESP S-STEM) are funded by the National Science Foundation, under grant DUE S-STEM #1153698.