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Auburn University announced recently that one of its programs has built on a $10 million National Science Foundation grant obtained last August to lead a research effort that promotes science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education among students from underrepresented and underserved populations.

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According to Auburn University, the Institute for Strengthening Pathways and Research Knowledge (SPARK) in STEM, or the SPARK STEM Institute,  aims to engage teachers and faculty, social science researchers, K-12 and higher education administrators, and the community in its efforts.

That engagement will be designed to evaluate innovative research-based models for improving student academic and social experiences to attract, retain and graduate more historically underrepresented and underserved populations in STEM disciplines.

Overtoun Jenda, assistant provost for special projects and initiatives at Auburn, whose office will be administering the initiative, told Auburn University that programs at the institute include African Americans, Alaska Natives, Hispanics, Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, Native Pacific Islanders, persons with disabilities, persons from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and women and young girls.

The SPARK STEM Institute will award scholarships, stipends, and internships to participating students, Jenda explained. “However, our core effort is to provide mentorship and guidance to encourage and support student successes,” Jenda said. More than 60 affiliate institutions are collaborating with the institute on various initiatives.

“This major award from the National Science Foundation and the establishment of the SPARK STEM Institute will allow Auburn and collaborating institutions to foster a more diverse workforce while improving educational opportunities for students with disabilities,” said James Weyhenmeyer, Auburn’s vice president for research and economic development, in the press release.

SPARK STEM Institute consists of two STEM centers: namely, SPARK STEM Center for Persons with Disabilities and SPARK STEM Center for Underrepresented Minorities and Underserved Populations. The two informal centers will share the same goals but have two distinct areas of focus and initiatives.

The institute is administered through the Office of Special Projects and Initiatives and governed by a board of deans and directors. Each center has its own specialized advisory board.

A joint conference for two SPARK STEM Institute programs, the Greater Alabama Black Belt Region Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation, and Making to Advance Knowledge, Excellence, and Recognition in STEM (MAKERS), was held on April 23 at The Hotel at Auburn University and Dixon Conference Center. The institute has planned a multiday symposium involving representatives from each of the SPARK STEM Institute participating institutions for this fall at Auburn.

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