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Experience, guidance and community

WVU prepares rural students for STEM majors through virtual summer camp

Thirteen first-year college students, including four enrolled in the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, connected with West Virginia University in July for a virtual summer camp to get a head start on their college experiences.  

Sadie Bergeron
Sadie Bergeron

The students are part of the First2 STEM Success Network, an INCLUDES Alliance and statewide collaboration supported by the National Science Foundation. The WVU Center for Excellence in STEM Education is one of the five lead organizations in the alliance and WVU was one of nine research immersion host sites this summer. The alliance is working to improve the college enrollment and retention rates of rural, first-generation and other underrepresented undergraduate STEM students from around the state, specifically during their first two years of college, a critical time when many students drop out.

While the two-week camp is typically held on campus, the students participated in a web-based research immersion experience in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was great to see that already, and even virtually, so much excitement and enthusiasm had developed for some students to do undergraduate research projects,” said Assistant Professor of Biology Sadie Bergeron, a faculty mentor. “My goal is to help them navigate that experience over time. They have four years to explore, and they will hopefully find an experience that is the right fit for them, or try a few different things, whether it be in my lab or someone else’s. That is a main goal of this program – to establish these connections early on to help students stay the course in their STEM major. Everyone brings a different perspective, and we need to increase diversity in STEM fields, especially in research. That starts in part through retaining students from diverse backgrounds in STEM majors.”

Michelle Richards-Babb
Michelle Richards-Babb

The camp’s lectures, meetings, tours and other activities were held via Zoom.  

“The hands-on nature of the program really kept our students engaged because they were doing something different every day,” said WVU Director of Undergraduate Research and Professor of Chemistry Michelle Richards-Babb, one of the program’s co-coordinators. “That was the goal even though we're all on computers.”  

This year’s cohort included:

Keli Adkins
Pineville 
Biology 

Raina Burton 
Davis 
Biology (Shepherd University) 

Riley Butcher
Summersville 
Immunology and Medical Microbiology      

Gavin Foster
Summersville 
Engineering 

Chasely Gardner 
Newell 
Exercise Physiology      

MaKenzie Harness 
Delbarton 
Chemistry and Biology   

Jessica Heffern 
Harpers Ferry 
Engineering  

Kassandra Hoff 
Millwood 
Engineering 

Skylar Jenkins 
New Cumberland 
Biology 

Morgan Kirl 
St. Marys 
Exercise Physiology

Kian McChesney 
Morgantown 
Neuroscience

Tolani Segrest-Brooks 
Hurricane 
Immunology and Medical Microbiology   

Melanie Zanabria 
Charles Town 
Pre-Immunology and Medical Microbiology  

The students collaborated to tackle real-world biological and environmental issues facing their communities, like water quality and neighborhood safety using GIS mapping. They received research kits via mail to conduct experiments in their home communities.  

MaKenzie Harness
MaKenzie Harness

“Over the last two weeks I have researched things that interest me, made connections with some of the most amazing people that I have ever met and built bonds that will hopefully last a lifetime,” Harness said. “This program has given me insight on what research projects look like and how I can tackle them piece by piece. I learned that it may not always be as easy as high school, but if I continue to work and push forward, I will eventually succeed.”

The cohort worked with faculty and student mentors from the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences to conduct their research projects.  

Aubrey Cumberledge
Aubrey Cumberledge

“This introduces first-year students to upperclassmen and professors within STEM who can help with some of the difficulties unique to being first-generation or underrepresented. We know what it is like to not completely understand the college system coming in, so we’re helping to share what we’ve learned so the gap gets smaller,” said Aubrey Cumberledge, a sophomore biology student from Harrison County who participated in the camp last year and returned this year to serve as an undergraduate mentor. “The program connects these students with each other. They’ll have this group to rely on for the rest of undergrad – maybe longer. They already know someone in their classes and already have some new friends. My cohort has become such good friends in the past year and spends time studying together, hanging out and providing support when we need it. Sometimes, what you really need is to know there are other people like you and that you’re not alone.”  

Cumberledge reflected on how the experience changed in moving to a virtual environment.

“First2 is all about three things: experience, guidance and community. We provide students a way to test out research and ways to get involved during college. The students develop laboratory and experimental skills before their first day of college and get an idea of what their classes could be like,” she said. “Last year, this meant being on campus and getting to experience a laboratory setting; this year, this means getting used to an online format and starting STEM prep sessions before classes begin.”  

Hannah Petronek
Hannah Petronek

The experience culminated in a virtual public research symposium held July 30 to 31 where the students shared their findings and reflected on what they learned.

“This experience prioritizes teaching first-year students about the research process and how to get involved in research. It can be hard as a freshman to get your foot in the door when it comes to research, and First2 has consistently tried to give these students the first little push to get there,” said undergraduate mentor Hannah Petronek, a senior biochemistry major from Wheeling. “First2 is a place for new students to get to know each other as well as their mentors. It is very empowering for them to befriend and learn from faculty mentors and First2 alumni. Navigating the world of higher education is extremely daunting as a first-generation college student, especially those studying STEM disciplines. It is uncharted territory for us, and First2 aims to bridge that gap by providing mentorship, tutoring, financial support and so much more.”

Kathryn Williamson
Kathryn Williamson

The virtual camp helped the students connect to campus and make friends before arriving in Morgantown this fall.

“Many of the students have commented on how much the group means to them in that they feel accepted and safe here,” said Teaching Associate Professor Kathryn Williamson, a co-coordinator of the program. “That was really powerful. We're giving students who maybe have had some difficult experiences in their lives up to this point a safe space and helping them to feel welcome at WVU.”  

First-year student Keli Adkins shared she is much more confident starting college later this month after attending the virtual camp.

“All of the professors and students I met have helped me in one way or another. It gives me peace of mind knowing that I will already know some professors and upperclassmen at WVU that I can contact if I need anything. They have all become mentors to me,” Adkins said. “This experience has shown me that the workload will not always be easy, but it will be fun if it is in a subject that you enjoy and that WVU professors are very supportive.”