‘I wouldn’t be an engineer without it’: UW program supports underserved STEM students

STARS executive director Sonya Cunningham (left) and faculty director Eve Riskin. (UW Photo)

A University of Washington program to support STEM students from low-income and underserved backgrounds is now nine years old. And it aims to spread the model to other institutions.

The Washington State Academic RedShirt program (STARS) takes a cue from college sports, where “redshirting” enables an extra year of eligibility for athletes. 

Students sign up for an extra year at the UW, strengthening their skills before diving into core math and science classes. They also work closely with mentors and advisors.

“I truly think this is the national model on how to get less-privileged students through STEM careers,” said STARS co-founder and faculty director Eve Riskin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. The University of Colorado Boulder first developed the model and the UW is tasked with spreading it, said Riskin.

STARS hosted a national workshop this month to share its approach with 30 other universities and colleges. In addition, the UW leads a National Science Foundation grant that funds similar programs at six other universities, including Washington State University and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

How it works

STARS has graduated 88 engineering or computer science majors, all from high schools in Washington state. They are now working at companies such as Amazon, Boeing, Accenture, Honeywell and Qualcomm.

Students in the two-year program take supplemental courses in math, chemistry, physics and computer science; receive guidance about study skills and internships; and tap into peer and faculty mentoring.

The program also goes beyond academic support, said executive director Sonya Cunningham.

“It takes a lot to help students to be successful,” said Cunningham, “It’s about holistic wraparound support within a culture of care. And that essentially means that we are really dedicated to helping students to overcome individual barriers to success.”

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One student, for instance, was getting low grades because his parents visited every weekend and took him out — they didn’t have a college background so didn’t realize how hard he had to study, said Cunningham. Program advisors helped the student get back on track.

Bailey Griffin’s high school in rural Oroville, Wash., didn’t teach calculus, chemistry, or physics, unlike schools in wealthier urban areas.

“STARS really helped me build a better foundation for those subjects at UW that wouldn’t have been possible with my background,” said Griffin, who graduated from the UW in 2021 and is now an engineer with Parametrix, a transportation consultancy.

“Going through engineering school is very hard and can be really lonely. With STARS, I had a built-in support system of other students. The program was also invaluable for professional development,” said Griffin. “I wouldn’t be an engineer without the program.”

STARS graduate Bailey Griffin (right) during an internship working on light rail development. (UW Photo)

Filling in the gaps

Riskin has seen how students at the top of their high school class can hit a wall when they come to the UW.

“We see the discrepancy across the state between students who are growing up in privileged areas and students who are growing up in higher poverty regions,” said Riskin. And that discrepancy can grow during college. “You show up and you can run into racism, sexism, elitism, and you get these messages that you don’t belong.”

That feeling of not belonging can cause people to leave engineering fields, said Riskin, who also co-founded the UW ADVANCE program to support women STEM faculty.

Riskin thinks the STARS model fits best at flagship public institutions where the typical engineering student is less likely to qualify for financial aid than a student in the general university population.

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NSF has provided funding to initiate programs similar to STARS, but institutions need to find other sources of support long term. UW program funders now include the Hopper-Dean Foundation and other and other philanthropies.

STARS students and alumni are starting to give back and support the program in their own way. One student organized his friends to give to STARS on Husky Giving Day. Others help with recruiting, and several have encouraged younger siblings to apply, said Riskin.

The recent meeting accelerated discussions with other institutions seeking to adopt a similar model. Said Riskin: “One of the comments during the meeting was ‘STARS fills all the gaps.’”

Impact on students

Below are some highlights of UW STARS program accomplishments.

  • 67% of STARS students are first-generation college students; 47% are “racially/ethnically minoritized”; 43% are women; and 83% hold Pell Grants, U.S. government grants for low-income students.
  • The program has about an 80% retention rate in engineering or computer science majors.
  • STARS students academically outperform their peers, with higher-than-average grades in classes such as Calculus I and II, and computational science and engineering I and II.
  • STARS pre-engineering students report a greater sense of belonging to the College of Engineering community than non-STARS students. They also report greater confidence in their math and science abilities, and in their time management, networking and interview skills.

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