NYIT male and female student


NSF Grant Helps Students Get Their STEM Careers on Track

May 1, 2019

Faculty members at NYIT College of Engineering and Computing Sciences have received a five-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant exceeding $600,000 to support students from low-income backgrounds to study and graduate from two tech-intensive majors. Known informally as FASTRAC (Financial and Academic Support to Retain and Advance Completion), the program will help fill the national need for well-educated scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technicians.

Principal investigator (PI) Huanying (Helen) Gu, Ph.D., will direct the grant, awarded by the NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE) for a project to recruit, support, and retain 16 (four per year) academically talented, low-income New York City students who will major in computer science or electrical and computer engineering (ECE). The DUE’s mission includes increasing the number, quality, and diversity of the nation’s STEM workforce.

The FASTRAC project seeks to advance knowledge about the effectiveness of academic support strategies, including faculty development and curriculum/classroom enhancements. According to recent nationwide data, less than 39% of all college students who aspire to complete a bachelor’s degree in engineering actually earn such a degree within six years, and the numbers are worse for computer science degrees. Moreover, low income students are significantly less likely than average to have completed high school prerequisites for a computer science or engineering degree. FASTRAC aims for an 80% five-year graduation rate.

Gu, a professor of computer science, and fellow faculty members Ziqian (Cecilia) Dong, Ph.D. (ECE); N. Sertac Artan, Ph.D. (ECE); Houwei Cao, Ph.D. (computer science); and Reza Khalaj Amineh, Ph.D. (ECE) will work with New York City Career and Technical Education (CTE) as well as other New York City public schools to identify candidates for the program. FASTRAC Scholars will receive a minimum of $9,000/year, in addition to other financial aid for which they may qualify, and will acquire professional competencies through interactions with faculty, peers, collegial networks, and industry.

“Graduates of New York City CTE programs are more than ready to enter into challenging technical fields and can often lack the financial resources to make their aspirations a reality,” said Seung Yu, senior executive director of the Office of Postsecondary Readiness in the New York City Department of Education. “Thank you to NYIT and the National Science Foundation for the support, which will inspire our talented graduates in need of financial assistance to enter and pursue degrees in computer science or engineering,” he added.

Beyond financial support, NYIT will offer enhanced academic support for FASTRAC Scholars to help them persist in the math-intensive majors and ultimately make the leap to their chosen tech careers. Each scholar will be assigned a faculty mentor from the first year, and mentors will oversee students’ progress through the program. High impact instructional practices like collaborative learning and real-life projects will be embedded in the majors’ required courses. Outside of class, students will participate in engineering design challenges, hackathons, and internships to help them develop professional competencies as well as “soft skills” critical to career achievement.

“This award gives us the space to reimagine the computer science and ECE majors with the aim of increasing persistence of low-income students,” Babak D. Beheshti, Ph.D., dean of the College of Engineering and Computing Sciences. “It’s an opportunity to advance knowledge about the effectiveness of various academic support strategies so that every student has the best chance to achieve the career of their dreams.”

“Preparing FASTRAC Scholars to work in STEM fields ultimately benefits all stakeholders who want to nurture the new generation of aspiring engineers and computer scientists,” said Gu, “because the project’s activities are both scalable and adaptable.”

The first cohort of FASTRAC Scholars will start at NYIT’s New York City campus in fall 2019.