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Lincoln University Aims to Strengthen STEM Programs Through Teaching, Research

When Dr. Ivory Nelson became president of Lincoln University in 1999, Nelson, a trained chemist, declared that he would make scientific research and education one of his greatest priorities.

One example of progress on the STEM — science technology, engineering and mathematics — front is in the research of Dr. Derrick Swinton, a Lincoln chemistry professor who in May received his second Department of Defense grant. The three-year, $482,838 grant was issued through the HBCU/MI program, which is geared specifically toward minority serving institutions, and was used to buy equipment for a complex technique that Swinton uses in his research called single-molecule spectroscopy. Spectroscopy uses light to examine the properties of molecules and chemicals and Swinton’s work has wide implications in both medicine and even nanotechnology.

“These Department of Defense grants are major steps forward,” Swinton says, adding that the grants will bring “prestige” to the university. “The fact that some HBCUs do outstanding research in the sciences often goes unrecognized. People sometimes say that you are at an HBCU because you couldn’t make it in a White university. I could have gone anywhere, and I chose to come here.”

The road to STEM success at Lincoln University has not always been smooth. In 2007, Dr. Abdulalim Shabazz, a noted mathematician who was honored with a national mentoring award by President Clinton in 2000, resigned from his post at Lincoln in protest of a perceived lack of commitment to STEM.

Swinton adds that Lincoln’s previous weaknesses in the sciences hampered his own efforts to secure grants, along with his unfamiliarity with grant writing, which was exacerbated by the fact that he did not have a mentor to help guide the grant-writing process.

As a part of its strategic plan for 2009-2013, Lincoln outlined its goals to overhaul its science programs, which include plans to “increase the number of enrolled sciences and mathematics majors … retain 70 percent of those students majoring in science and math who entered in fall 2008 … secure partnerships and cooperative agreements with major research universities for enhancing student and faculty development and significantly augment the (chemistry) department’s research capabilities.”

“My vision,” says Nelson, “is to have a program where a young person comes in and has access to a strong curriculum, and good mentoring.” Moreover, Nelson sees research as the backbone of a successful university. “If you are not doing some form of research then you are not keeping up with changes in your discipline.

Without research, anything you are doing with curriculum will fail. We at Lincoln believe that you learn by doing and you learn by thinking. A young person can do all the calculations, the reading, and postulations, but if they cannot participate in research they will not reach their potential.”

Nelson was the driving force behind the construction of a $40 million science building that opened two years ago, which will carry his name. When Nelson arrived at Lincoln “the facilities for the STEM programs were in different buildings and they were old,” making it a challenge to recruit students. This is what prompted Nelson to push to create a building that would bring the various STEM programs under one roof.

Swinton says he is not advocating a departure from teaching.

In fact, he gives credit for Lincoln’s growth in STEM programs to teaching. “We have a very good faculty that really cares and wants to see students succeed. When you work with [a] smaller group of students you can adjust teaching methods. It is important for Lincoln to maintain its strong foundation in teaching.”

Meanwhile, Swinton thinks Lincoln is on the brink of becoming a significant force in scientific research. “Lincoln is a diamond in the rough. We have a core group of great young faculty researchers who just need a few key resources and support.”

The next step forward for Lincoln, according to Swinton, is to develop graduate programs in STEM disciplines. He points out that in order to retain the momentum gained with the undergraduate programs, the university must have a master’s program in place for those specific programs. Nelson, for his part, agrees, though he cautions against moving too fast on that front, saying such master’s programs should be developed “in a judicious manner.”

Though Lincoln has made great strides in STEM, Swinton asserts that embracing even further change is essential. “We must move away from this old ideology of just being a teaching institution, because doing research can be a road to financial stability. Some of the HBCUs that are becoming the most successful are those that have integrated research with teaching. You can no longer rely on just tuition to drive your university.”

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