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National Science Foundation grant establishes LEARN program at WCU

Western Carolina University, in collaboration with the University of Central Florida and Florida Atlantic University, has received $1.8 million from the National Science Foundation to support first-generation college students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math programs, better known as STEM.


The grant will provide scholarships to students majoring in STEM disciplines and create an innovative living-learning community that will provide additional supports and opportunities for students to succeed and graduate in fields that drive innovation and economic growth.

First-year students will live in the same residence hall, take core disciplinary classes together, work with mentors and engage in a 12-week research apprenticeship with faculty. This research-focused model is based on success in the Learning Environment and Academic Research Network, or LEARN, established by the University of Central Florida in 2011. The effort was led by UCF Director of Undergraduate Research Kim Schneider and Alison Morrison-Shetlar, WCU’s provost, who previously served as vice provost and dean of undergraduate studies at UCF.

Research indicates that participants in living-learning communities have higher GPAs, increased interaction with faculty and peers, and a broader, more fulfilling educational experience. An article published earlier this year in the Journal of College Science Teaching described the effectiveness of this living-learning community model for student retention in STEM disciplines. Morrison-Shetlar, who co-authored the article, cited the 2012 President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommendation to target the first two years of college as a critical juncture for students in those fields.

Morrison-Shetlar is the principal investigator for the $550,000 portion of the grant awarded to WCU. A principal investigator has primary responsibility for achieving the technical success of a project and for compliance with the financial and administrative requirements for the grant. William R. Kwochka, associate professor of chemistry, is the co-principal investigator and will serve as the director of the STEM living-learning community at WCU.

Marissa Taylor works in the Mosquito and Vector-Borne Infectious Disease Facility at WCU in this spring 2015 photograph.

Marissa Taylor works in the Mosquito and Vector-Borne Infectious Disease Facility at WCU in this spring 2015 photograph.

Together, the three institutions, which all attract significant numbers of first-generation college students, comprise the LEARN consortium.

“Nearly 30 percent of WCU’s students are the first in their families to go to college. They have different needs than students who come from households where a family member has paved the way for them and provided the support they need to be successful,” said Kwochka. “Our goal is to provide the foundation that addresses those needs. The provost is a first-generation college student herself, so she is personally as well as professionally invested in its success.”

The National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950. The foundation promotes the progression of science for the advancement of health, prosperity and welfare, funding approximately 24 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities.

To find out more about the LEARN program at WCU, contact either Kwochka at or Morrison-Shetlar at

By Geoff Cantrell

Categories | The Reporter

Photos | WCU News Services

Commencement 2017
Commencement 2017


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