In 2008, three schools — DePaul University, Harold Washington College, and Truman College — received a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation for their innovative project called the Chicago Initiative on Research and Retention in Undergraduate Science or CIRRUS.
The project’s goals are ambitious: to increase the number of science graduates by 30 percent — and the number of minority graduates by 100 percent — over the next five years. “We’re identifying students early in a program who are at risk of dropping out of science and providing them with experiences that might help them stay the course,” says Chris Goedde, professor in the physics department.
Each year, 25 students participate in CIRRUS: 15 from DePaul, five from Harold Washington College, and five from Truman College.
"The city colleges serve groups historically under-represented in the sciences—especially African-American and Hispanic students — and we hope that our collaboration will result in new pathways for them to study science at DePaul,"
says Lyn Narasimhan, professor in the mathematics department.
A taste for real science
In their first summer in the program, the students spend six weeks working on original science projects in physics, chemistry, or biology under the direction of teachers from the participating schools.
Each team designs its own research. For example, one of the physics teams built a radio telescope, and then listened to Jupiter late one night. The other designed an instrument for measuring cosmic rays, and then tied it to weather balloons launched three times from small towns outside the city. One chemistry team made solar cells from organic dyes; another tried to modify ink jet cartridges to print solutions needed for medical tests. During both summers (2008 and 2009), the biology teams tested the local environment for ozone levels in the air and e-coli bacteria in the water.
“In class labs, the students are constrained by time or expected results,” says
Jesús Pando, associate professor and chair of the Physics Department, “but in the program, they make the decisions, and they have to live with the consequences — exactly how science really works. We keep doing wrong things until we find the right thing. All the teams put in some long days, but at the end of each summer the students wanted more time. That’s a good sign.”
During the academic year, the students meet six times, usually to hear guest speakers or special lectures. “Our intent is to provide both enrichment and an opportunity for the students to maintain peer group contact,” says Leilah McNabb, program coordinator. Some went beyond the scope of the program and started their own peer-to-peer tutoring group, as well as joining an outreach program that visits high school to tell students about science.
Each Friday during their first summer, the students take field trips to see the behind-the-scenes science at one of Chicago’s leading institutions, including the Field Museum, Lincoln Park Zoo, Argonne National Laboratory, and the Art Institute. Then, in the second summer, they can apply for internships. But getting a job is not a given, as Dominic Travis, vice president of conservation and science at the Lincoln Park Zoo, makes clear:
“We get a lot of applicants for our internships, and the DePaul students had to provide a cover letter, resume, and transcript — just like everyone else. We’re very selective, but picked 100 percent of the program’s students that we interviewed.” At the zoo, more than 40 researchers in 10 disciplines are organized into five conceptual centers covering ecology, health science (epidemiology, endocrinology, nutrition) veterinary medicine, behavioral sciences, and population and conservation biology.
“It’s fantastic that DePaul saw the zoo as a place to include in this program,” says Travis. “And the interns did a really good job. At the end of the summer, they presented their work very professionally to our conservation department — the program directors should be proud of what they did here.”
Melissa Mayer, employment specialist and coordinator of the internship program at the Field Museum, echoes a similar sentiment:
“One-third of our 530 staff members work in some scientific capacity, and each summer the museum hires 175 interns. When DePaul suggested we host students from the program, four groups — the molecular lab, the botany department, the zoology department and the biodiversity synthesis center — expressed an enthusiastic interest. The six students who worked here were fantastic — interested in everything, participating in events and activities, and networking with our scientists and management. In fact, one of their supervisors did everything he could to keep them on in the fall because they were so productive, confident, and engaged.”
Just the beginning
So far, the success of the program is apparent in the students’ enthusiasm.
Reid Gustafson says: "CIRRUS gave me the tools to define myself as a scientist and the ability to stand out among my peers in the scientific community.” Sam Eilers had a similar reaction: “Participating in CIRRUS was not only a fun and interesting experience, but it gave me more confidence in pursuing a scientific career."
Sarah Lopez says, "I had many doubts about studying chemistry at college. The CIRRUS program helped me see many possibilities for this degree." Tia Butler also credits the program with clarifying her goals: “Participating in the CIRRUS program has made a big impact on my future. I’ve decided to double major in civil and materials engineering.”
“We’re only beginning our third year, so it’s still early to prove that intervention has increased the number of students sticking with science, but the students, faculty, and partnering institutions give us nothing but positive feedback,” says McNabb.
For 2009, the program received 90 applications for the 25 spots.
“In many ways, the program has exceeded my expectations,” says Goedde. “Now, we’re looking for ways to expand its scope to give comparable opportunities to many more students.”