“STEP” Helps Science Majors Follow Their Dreams


Chemistry major Ryan Groom credits Armstrong Atlantic State University’s innovative STEP Program with enabling him to fulfill his dream of becoming a scientist.

“I have gained strong research and analytical skills through the STEP Program,” he said. “It’s really helped me across the board.”

Groom, a sophomore, works with Chemistry department chair Dr. Will Lynch to conduct hands-on research using a nuclear magnetic resonance machine to study the properties of thallium. It’s all part of a larger effort to use nanotechnology to de-chlorinate environmental contaminants.

“I’m really lucky,” enthused  Groom. “To get to use a nuclear magnetic resonance machine as an undergraduate is extremely unusual. My friends at other colleges can’t even touch this machine until they’re in graduate school.”

Thanks to a five-year, $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation,  entering freshmen at Armstrong  begin conducting scientific research at the university’s laboratories before they even set foot in a classroom for fall classes. They continue their research as undergraduates, enjoying critical hands-on learning opportunities.

The STEP Program, which officially started in June 2009, offers unique freshmen experiences each year for a select group of incoming undergraduate students. Students perform undergraduate research and obtain intensive new skills in applied mathematics over two summers. These students participate in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) freshmen-year learning communities, which facilitate student retention and success as majors in the College of Science and Technology and eventually become mentors to incoming freshmen.

Misti Gurley, a senior at AASU who serves as a STEP peer mentor, believes that the research opportunities Armstrong provides science majors give students a definite edge, both inside and outside the classroom.

“In order to really understand science, you have to do research,” she said. “Students with a drive can really benefit. You learn so much more. You’re more comfortable in the lab, and you understand things better.”

Dr. Delana Nivens, associate professor of Chemistry and STEP program director at Armstrong, agrees.

“It’s about creating a community of scholars, from freshmen through upper-class students and faculty,” she explained. “We’ve brought a model that is used in graduate school to the undergraduate level. This is the only program of its kind in the state, and it has been extremely successful.”

About the STEP Program:

The National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP) supports the establishment of learning communities focusing on undergraduate research for students with a desire to pursue careers in science and mathematics, and who demonstrate a strong aptitude in those fields.

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