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Bioengineering Scholar Program Offers Underrepresented Students Launch Pad from Community College to Research Careers

A new program in the College of Engineering, Design and Computing at the University of Colorado Denver seeks to recruit, retain, and graduate underrepresented community college transfer students into bioengineering degrees, preparing them to pursue a PhD or MD/PhD and careers in research.

Funded through a $1.1 million, four-year National Institutes of Health research education grant, the Bioengineering Scholar Program is a partnership with the Community College of Denver, which serves as the referring institution. The first cohort is expected to start applying in January 2023 and begin in the summer.

“Our recruitment efforts are focused on getting in front of the right students, those who already have an interest in engineering or biomedical sciences and raising their awareness about bioengineering as the newest engineering discipline,” says Keith Neeves, PhD, professor and interim chair of the Department of Bioengineering, and co-director of the Bioengineering Scholar Program.

Neeves co-leads the program with Tarik Walker, MD, physician scientist in the department of Bioengineering and health disparities researcher.

“There are very low numbers of Latino and Black students pursing engineering related to their white student counterparts, particularly at the undergraduate level,” Walker says. “This is something Keith has also recognized for many years. The program offers a great opportunity to attract underserved and underrepresented students to get them into bioengineering.”

Walker notes there’s a growing body of research demonstrating Black American and Latino students have the same interests in science, technology, engineering, and math as their white undergraduate counterparts, but they are almost two times as likely change their majors once they start a STEM or engineering pathway.

“The dropout rate without earning a degree is twice as high as their white counterparts,” he adds.

There are several factors that affect retention, Walker says, including financial constraints, lack of access to academic resources and mentoring, feelings of imposter syndrome, as well as lingering elements of systemic racism within the bioengineering and STEM space.

The Bioengineering Scholars Program will address the specific challenges faced by underrepresented students, ensuring they are prepared and fully supported along the way. As an African American researcher, Walker says he considers himself a visual role model for incoming cohorts, representing the value of diversity and inclusion though his work.

“Bioengineering is a very difficult academic path to pursue even if you come from a strong scientific background, it is not easy to get PhD or masters,” he says. “We aren’t only able to provide students with the academic and financial support they need as they matriculate through the bioengineering pathway, they will also receive academic and peer mentoring, so they don’t get discouraged.”

Before a student begins the program, they will first receive pre-transfer advising to develop a personalized course plan, identify scholarship and financial aid opportunities, find on campus housing and childcare, and get advice from current bioengineering students. 

“CU Denver has a very high percentage of students that are community college transfers and that is true of bioengineering and engineering at large,” Neeves says. “We want to capture all the things available to these students, including scholarships.”

Once enrolled, students participate in a summer bridge program. That is followed by a first year paid apprenticeship program working on CU Denver’s campus that is aligned with their studies and supported by academic and peer mentorship.

Bioengineering is a dual campus and department program, the first of its kind in Colorado. After students complete the first portion of their studies at the Denver campus, they’ll spend most of their time on the Anschutz Medical Campus. The move to the Anschutz Medical Campus culminates with a paid summer research internship working in a laboratory. During the summer internship, the cohort will participate in workshops and programming on topics like research ethics.

While continuing to pursue their degree, students can tap into additional resources including entrepreneurship courses, as well as receiving assistance completing applications for graduate school or medical school.

“We are building a launch pad for these students to prepare to be competitive for PhD programs,” Neeves says.

Jamal Bowen, dean of instruction for the STEM Pathway and Manufacturing Pathway at the Community College of Denver, says he is excited to partner with the Department of Bioengineering.

“The type of students we get come from all walks of life,” he says. “The program offers a great opportunity for our students to gain awareness of the types of fields of study available to them and creates additional options and avenues for them to succeed.”

Adds Martin Dunn, Dean of the College of Engineering, Design and Computing, “I am excited about the potential of this program to significantly strengthen diversity in bioengineering, one of the key desires I hear from employers. It is another example of our strategic commitment to equity and excellence as the most diverse engineering college in Colorado, and complements our recent announcement of a DoD-sponsored program to help forge pathways from community colleges to engineering careers for students from underrepresented groups.”

CU Denver Engineering, Design and Computing View All

At the CU Denver College of Engineering, Design and Computing, we focus on providing our students with a comprehensive engineering education at the undergraduate, graduate and professional level. Faculty conduct research that spans our five disciplines of civil, electrical and mechanical engineering, bioengineering, and computer science and engineering. The college collaborates with industry from around the state; our laboratories and research opportunities give students the hands-on experience they need to excel in the professional world.

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