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Fall 2000

What makes SOARS a standout?

by Zhenya Gallon

Protégé Kevin Green sampled the headwaters of Boulder Creek this summer to study the relationship between streambed mobility and invertebrate abundance in mountain streams. Green says, "Through working with my science research mentors, I gained insight, knowledge, and a broader understanding of science." (Photo by Carlye Calvin.)

Many programs designed to interest students from underrepresented communities in academic and professional science have some of the same features that SOARS does, but none offers its complete blend of personal attention, community building, flexibility, and multiyear support. That's the consensus of educators and administrators whom we asked to comment on UCAR's Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Science and Research program, now in its fifth year.

SOARS supports students during the last two years of their undergraduate training and first two years of graduate school. UCAR has built partnerships with NSF, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), NASA, NOAA, and the UCAR university community to create a year-round program that includes a ten-week paid internship each summer at NCAR or another national lab. This year 39 students, known as protégés, are enrolled; 23 of them were in Boulder this summer.

The number of mentors per protégé is one of the features that sets SOARS apart. Approximately 70 staff members, mostly at UCAR and NCAR but also at other participating national labs, volunteered as either science research, scientific writing, or community mentors this year. There's a fourth mentor assigned to all incoming SOARS students: a peer who has been in the program for a year or more.

As a program coordinator in NSF's Division of Atmospheric Sciences, Jewel Prendeville is familiar with many internship programs that can only provide one mentor for many students. "In SOARS, the ratios are reversed: one student, many mentors," she notes. That really sets the program apart.

According to John Snow, the intensive mentoring does the students "a lot of good." Snow, the dean of the College of Geosciences at the University of Oklahoma, taught an OU student who participated in SOARS. "I think the experience she had over three summers gave her a lot more professional poise and maturity," he says.

"SOARS is a learning community structured around the mentoring process," explains Tom Windham, the program's full-time director (a position that many other programs do not have). Windham has conceptualized and facilitated the development of a community whose members all learn from each other. A social psychologist by training, Windham has combed relevant research in search of ingredients that have proved significant in helping students from historically underrepresented groups succeed at higher levels. But the concept of a learning community predates that research, and Windham readily cites the now-familiar African proverb that it takes a whole village to raise a child.

A flexible, student-centered approach

Windham "has shown a great deal of flexibility in allowing protégés to follow their own interests at their own schedules," says Prendeville. "He flexes the program to fit the student rather than forcing the student to fit into a narrow mold, and I think that's been very productive."

At Windham's request, NSF and the other sponsoring agencies visit the program annually and receive a considerable amount of feedback from protégés and mentors. That level of interchange between participants and sponsors is rare. Because feedback is so important to the SOARS model, the SOARS staff builds in midcourse appraisals and final evaluations for all participants. Over time, the returning protégés can see their previous year's suggestions integrated into the program. That level of student influence is also rare.

"It's not a one-shot deal"

"Another big strength," says Snow of the program, "is that SOARS is in it for the long run. It's not a one-shot deal." Snow sees multiyear support as essential if the atmospheric scientific community is to be successful in attracting and retaining a diverse professional workforce. Barbara Kraus agrees. She's coordinator for the University of Colorado's Summer Multicultural Access to Research Training program. SMART offers mentoring and community-building activities, but right now students come for one summer. Kraus views the four years of support SOARS offers as a way to keep students "hooked into the pipeline" that leads to a research career. In her experience, the high salaries of summer internships in industry prove tempting to many science and technology majors, who then choose industry over graduate school. By keeping students involved for four years and offering up to 50% support for the first two years of graduate training, SOARS provides "a strong incentive to go on, rather than drop out."

Kraus also praised the personal attention Windham gives to each SOARS protégé. "It takes that kind of one-on- one—of someone watching over you, looking out for you, pushing you along," she says. "It makes a difference." Kraus has observed Windham's ongoing encouragement first hand as two SOARS students have entered Ph.D. programs at CU.

The flattery of imitation

Jeffrey Gaffney, chief scientist for DOE's Global Change Education Program, has served not only as a DOE representative but also as a science research mentor for SOARS protégé Cherelle Blazer, who spent the summer of 1999 working with Gaffney at DOE's Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago. Gaffney visited Boulder last year and came away with the impression that "the mentoring program within SOARS was giving the students a feeling of belonging to a greater whole. . . . It was clear that the program was connecting with undergraduates and encouraging them to enter graduate school in [atmospheric science]." His observations and experiences led Gaffney to adapt the SOARS model in designing GCEP's Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE).

The SOARS model is exceptional at this moment. With only six alumni, SOARS is still learning from the experiences of its community of protégés and mentors. There are challenges for those who might want to adopt the SOARS model elsewhere, including issues of size (how large can a learning community get?) and expense (where will the salaries for protégés, which match the pay scale of the hosting lab, come from?). But the interest and support from sister programs and sponsoring agencies suggest that the success of SOARS, and not its uniqueness, is the attribute worth fostering.


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Edited by Carol Rasmussen, carolr@ucar.edu
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Last revised: Wed Dec 13 17:24:16 MST 2000