Spotlight on University of Houston-Downtown’s Scholars Academy

Hispanic Community May 2024 PREMIUM

The UHD Scholars Academy, a federally designated Hispanic-serving and Minority-serving institution, celebrates its 25th year supporting STEM undergraduates through faculty and peer mentoring, tuition support, community engagement, and research opportunities, and fostering a diverse pipeline of prepared candidates for graduate programs and industry.


UHD is a federally designated Hispanic-serving and Minority-serving institution. The UHD Scholars Academy (SA) program celebrates its 25th year in existence. Over these 25 years, a major highlight of its support for STEM undergraduate success has been the development and growth of the faculty and peer mentoring system, which is foundational to building discipline-based cohorts and belongingness. At its inception in 1999, the Scholars Academy began with one faculty member as mentor to the single peer mentor group. The group was led by a senior undergraduate peer mentor working with the lone faculty mentor. 25 years later, the Scholars Academy supports 18 faculty and 18 peer mentor groups across math/statistics/data science, natural sciences (biology/chemistry, biotechnology), and disciplines related to computer science and engineering technology, forming small learning communities. Faculty and peer mentoring groups provide monthly meetings to enhance the undergraduate first year and subsequent experiences throughout the four-year degree program. 

Faculty selected as mentors meet twice per semester for training and post-semester feedback. Each selectee has a PhD, is active in research, nurturing in character, and is a subject matter expert within their own discipline. Likewise, the undergraduate peer mentors are trained through multiple initiatives. First, new peer mentors must attend an off-site “wilderness-type” experience involving low and high challenge course events with meetings interspersed throughout the three-day training. The goal of the training is three-fold: 1) connect with your peer mentor partner (new with experienced); 2) challenge yourself physically and mentally, and 3) bond as a unit prepared to support your group through the semester/year. Secondly, the entire peer mentor group is coordinated, trained, and led by a faculty member in the STEM discipline. The peer mentor coordinator meets with the whole group of peer mentors monthly to provide oversight and additional training for the leader peers.  

Over 160-180 undergraduates find tuition support (generated from in-house UHD funding and federal/state foundation and grant sources), grade enhancement/tutoring services at the lower and upper divisions of all STEM disciplines, peer-led team-learning workshop training sessions, broadening experiences across the STEM disciplines (in the form of field trips and scholarly seminars), and invaluable mentored research opportunities in PhD laboratory settings both on-campus and off-campus as part of the SA. Additionally, hands-on summer bridge programs for incoming freshmen, transfers and continuing undergraduates are supported in the areas of transportation, cybersecurity certificates, environmental field experience research, and other mentored research opportunities. Peer-led Team-learning training occurs each semester and during the summer sessions, incorporating facilitation training for groups, team-building, and leadership lessons, all of which provide confidence and capacity for further growth.  This training combines with academic training for increased student competency.

UHD Scholars Academy strongly believes in community engagement as a mechanism through which students can “give back” to their own communities. To accomplish this, each faculty/peer mentor group selects an agency affiliated with their discipline to work with in providing community service. This engagement occurs each semester, producing over 2,500 hours of community service annually. Other hours are generated by scholars individually as a result of the Scholars Academy’s investment in community engagement. In post-semester assessments, Scholars Academy members indicate that they gain so much appreciation for the SA because they see themselves in those they serve in the community.

Further, Scholars Academy supports the full circle experience of research with legacy events that provide opportunities to disseminate research findings. One such legacy event is the university-wide Student Research Conference held annually. Here, undergraduates in STEM and across non-STEM disciplines have the opportunity to provide presentations to over 300 faculty and other undergraduates, thus replicating the actual culmination of a research project at the Master’s or Doctoral levels. Here, lessons and professional development opportunities occur for STEM majors. Lessons include how to dress professionally, talking with graduate/health profession/industry representatives about future possibilities at their institutions, and seeking career advice/information that empowers these majors to plan for their future entry into the workforce.

Moreover, the Scholars Academy supports external research project dissemination for undergraduates at the local, state, regional, and national levels. These external experiences provide an enriching experience to disseminate and to network with undergraduates, and faculty outside the UHD university. External funding in the form of grant awards has significantly contributed to the support and success of this program’s undergraduates. Federal grant awards such as NOAA, DOED MSEIP, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, NSF S-STEM, State grant awards such as Texas Talent Connection (Wagner-Peyser national funding) and Texas Dept of Transportation (Federal Highways Administration funding), as well as local foundation awards such as Brown Foundation and others, assist in the support of all Scholars Academy student success activities. With each of these grant awards comes the opportunity for not only student support services but also summer mentored research support and programs for UHD STEM undergraduates and UHD research faculty. Each mentored research experience involving undergraduates opens their eyes to what a future research career could look and feel like. This single opportunity enhances the likelihood of STEM students matriculating into graduate/professional programs by growing their competence and confidence within the lab and discipline (Lopatto, 2007).

Scholars Academy supports approximately 320 to 360 STEM undergraduates annually through its program. This represents approximately 20% of the College of Sciences and Technology STEM population. However, tremendous overflow across the entire college is evidenced in seminar attendance, participation in the Student Research Conference and the Graduate School and Internship Fair (where industry and graduate/professional programs from across the U.S., especially Texas, are provided a free of charge exhibit booth to share their offerings with the SA members and UHD STEM majors) another legacy event for the entire UHD. With an ongoing STEM matriculation rate of 44% into graduate/professional programs following graduation, approximately a 50% rate of entrance into medical/dental/other health professions, and 53% entering the STEM workplace immediately following graduation, the UHD Scholars Academy is not only providing a pipeline of preparation for its STEM undergraduates, but it is also supporting the Houston and the general southwest region with strong, diverse, experienced and leadership-trained STEM candidates for industry.

About the Author

Dr. Mary Jo Parker is faculty in the Natural Sciences department at the University of Houston-Downtown and Executive Director - Scholars Academy, a unit in the College of Sciences & Technology that supports STEM majors through scholarships, a mentoring system, broadening experiences, and professional assimilation experiences. She brings experience in curriculum development, leadership at K-12 to higher education, and online instruction. 


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