Coker program aims to improve STEM graduation rate

By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer,

Coker College is taking the lead in a national program to help academically talented low-income students stick with their majors and complete their degrees in the crucial STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) field of biology.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the college’s new STEM Scholars in Biology (SSB) program provides each qualifying student with around $6,000 in annual scholarship assistance for four years, as well as learning experiences tailored to deepen their commitment to a career in the biological science field.

The program’s first group of 18 students is already enrolled in its 2018 cohort, and Coker has received additional NSF funding of $682,000 to add a second group of up to 18 students for the 2019 cohort.

“The goal of the program is to not only increase the number of students majoring in biology, but increase the persistence, which is to say, do you stay a biology major? If you’re low income, you’re 50 percent less likely to stay in the biology major than if you were from an affluent family. This is not just Coker data; it mirrors a national trend,” says Dr. Joe Flaherty, professor of biology and director of undergraduate research at Coker College.

Flaherty serves as the project manager and principal investigator for the SSB program, along with co-principal investigator Tracy Parkinson, Coker’s vice president for strategic partnerships.

Coker College is the lead institution on this five-year, $4.4 million research project, along with College of Saint Elizabeth (Morristown, N.J.), Ferrum College (Ferrum, Va.), and Mercy College (Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.). The four schools belong to the Yes We Must Coalition, a non-profit committed to increasing degree attainment at small, independent colleges and universities – especially among low-income students.

“We’re all doing things right, but we could certainly do some things better,” says Flaherty, noting that the partnership hopes to combine their findings and tease out the best practices to improve student outcomes.

Coker’s SSB program will offer several STEM-themed activities such as new laptop computers, research trips to high-tech businesses and field-specific mentoring opportunities to help encourage students and demonstrate that they can succeed in STEM, regardless of their economic background, race or gender.

“It’s really important to underrepresented students. It’s important for women to see other women scientists, so I take students to conferences where they can see the keynote speaker is a woman, or an underrepresented group. If they don’t see that, they don’t see themselves fitting in,” says Flaherty.

At a recent National Science Board listening session held at SiMT (Southeastern Institute of Manufacturing and Technology) on the Florence-Darlington Tech campus, members of the NSB and local educators and businesses brainstormed ways to encourage minority students and workers toward high-tech careers. Flaherty says he agrees that minorities are an untapped resource, and he calls the growing STEM deficit a matter of national security.

“The U.S. has been a leader, but we could lose out to other countries if we can’t staff our STEM positions,” he says. “We don’t have enough graduates to meet the demand where companies are trying to hire students in STEM areas. It’s really a problem of national security in the future. If you don’t have enough people to fill STEM jobs, you become much less competitive in a global environment.”

For more information about Coker’s SSB program, contact Flaherty at or (843) 383-8079. Students interested in applying for Coker’s SSB 2019 cohort (entering Coker in the fall of 2019 and graduating in 2023) can apply online at

Author: Rachel Howell

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