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Natural disasters: $400K grant aims to inspire female students to study STEM, protect public

Anissa Hidouk/University Communications

Efforts are underway to encourage a new generation of young minority women to pursue STEM careers.

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With a high risk of natural disasters in Mississippi, the National Science Foundation has awarded JSU a nearly $400,000 grant that would help underserved communities with storm preparedness, provide mental therapy for weather-related trauma and inspire minority women to pursue STEM careers.

At Jackson State University, Project FAST (Females Advancing Science and Technology) aims to train a new generation of female emergency management and disaster-preparedness professionals. The future STEM workers would be expected to strengthen vulnerable communities and steer people out of harm’s way.

This is especially important because Mississippi’s climate and location are recipes for stirring up devastating storms. Reportedly, approximately 60 percent of communities in the Magnolia state are rural, and many people lack resources and knowledge to protect themselves during deadly weather.

Dr. Dawn Bishop McLin is the principal investigator and a professor in the Department of Psychology, said. She said the grant from the National Science Foundation is expected to increase undergraduate female minority students’ interest in emergency/disaster preparedness. As well, she predicts an increase in retention and progression in STEM disciplines.

Dr. Dawn Bishop McLin is a professor in the Department of Psychology. A grant from the National Science Foundation is expected to increase undergraduate female minority students’ interest in emergency/disaster preparedness. McLin, the principal investigator, said she also predicts an increase in retention and progression in STEM disciplines.

The NSF-sponsored program will involve several disciplines at JSU. They are computer science, technology, meteorology and psychology. In addition, partnerships include the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) and the National Weather Service.

Eligible students receive stipends through FAST program

Project FAST is being offered to rising sophomores and juniors in the qualified disciplines. After applying, eligible students will receive a stipend.

Dr. Dawn Bishop McLin, the principal investigator and a professor in the Department of Psychology, said, “FAST will help strengthen the research and learning culture and infrastructure at the university. The project’s activities are expected to increase female students’ interest in emergency/disaster preparedness and increase retention and progression in STEM disciplines.” She also said she believes the pilot program may serve as a replicable model for other institutions with a similar mission.

Furthermore, McLin said that FAST emphasizes effective communications about disaster preparedness and mitigation. She added that these are accompanied by accurate weather forecasting and warnings. “Still, the greatest outcomes of this project will be more educated and prepared communities and a new generation of young minority women inspired to pursue STEM careers.”

Urging women of color to pursue STEM careers

Academically, Project FAST activities will be designed to stimulate research interests of undergraduate female minority students and foster quantitative and discovery-based learning on emergency preparedness. As well, she said the JSU program is likely to increase classroom participation through group discussions, service learning, virtual classroom simulations and active-learning case studies. Ultimately, more students are expected to enter graduate school and help expand a skilled workforce in Mississippi and the nation, McLin said.

“It’s important for women of color to understand there are career options in STEM fields, especially with regard to emergency management. Encouraging women to pursue these career paths early in education, and then fostering environments where they can grow and thrive, is essential. We will work to remove bias and make a concerted investment in attracting women of color into emergency management/disaster preparedness in which we all benefit,” McLin said.

JSU professionals will provide mentorship, career training

Project FAST will be managed by a cross-disciplinary team of “highly qualified professionals” who have a record of providing academic enrichment, mentorship and career training to undergraduate female minority students, McLin said.

Other JSU members of the FAST team:

  • Dr. Jessica Murphy, co-principal investigator and a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Industrial Systems and Technology
  • Dr. Francis Dancer, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Computer Science
  • Dr. Dereka Smith, an adjunct professor in the Department of Chemistry, Physics and Atmospheric Sciences.

Overall, McLin said the public will benefit from classes and events. “There will be opportunities to directly engage the community and provide people with the tools they need to remain safe in vulnerable areas before, during and after a disaster.”

Students interested in the program should contact McLin at 601-979-3385 or dawn.bishop@jsums.edu.