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Multifaceted program will partner with STEM businesses

Published August 11, 2020

A group of Cal State Long Beach professors is creating a multifaceted program for Hispanic students, an initiative being touted as an innovative approach to increasing diversity in the STEM field. 

Professors from the College of Engineering (COE), College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics (CNSM), and the College of Business (COB) received a $2.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to build the “active learning educational program” called LEAP.

As part of the program, Cal State Long Beach is seeking business partners in the STEM industry, giving third- and fourth-year students the opportunity to work on year-long projects with businesses in their fields. Students will work with a team of mentors to ensure success: a faculty mentor from their college, an industry mentor from the business they’re paired with, a business advisor to help with their business action plans, and a compliance advisor who will monitor safety and ethical issue related to their respective projects.

“We think we’re the first in the nation to have a program like this, because part of this call from the National Science Foundation was to create something innovative,” said Associate Professor Dr. Shahab Derakhshan, the CNSM Coordinator for the program. “So, the fact that our grant proposal was reviewed under ‘innovation’ means there’s nothing exactly like it.”

Dr. Ehsan Barjasteh, an engineering professor and the principal investigator of the grant, said the program is needed to diversity the STEM workforce nationwide, especially in management-level positions.

Although the United States is seeing a higher percentage of women and ethnic minorities demographically, STEM professionals will remain overwhelmingly white throughout the next few decades with only 12% Hispanic and Black representation in the STEM workforce, according to the grant proposal.

We want to train skilled Hispanic STEM students to shrink that diversity gap. The students who participate in the program will benefit from an active learning approach, but also from guidance they’ll receive from a team of mentors in the industry, said Barjasteh.

A majority of the grant money will go toward the students in the program: each student will be paid a year’s worth of tuition, so any socio-economic obstacles will have less negative impact on their academic performance, Barjasteh said. This will hopefully, in turn, lead to higher graduation rates.

“We’re hoping that we created a platform so that students who might think of dropping out or not graduating are able to graduate,” he said. “Rather than prolonging their studies due to financial issues, they can become part of this program and achieve their goal of graduation within a year.”

Students within the program will also take a business course developed by professors working on the grant, which is not a part of curriculum required for STEM students. The professors are also working to turn the class into a general education (GE) course to give all STEM students the opportunity to learn the basics of business.

“These STEM students will be going to work with companies and gain real life experience, and it’s not possible to work in a business without knowing basic business concepts,” said Assistant Professor Banafsheh Behzad, the LEAP Business Advisor. “Our goal is to familiarize students with business concepts and give them basic business knowledge, which will help them with their project and beyond.”

This program is a necessity because it will show students opportunities outside of medical school and academia, Derakhshan said. Part of this program is showing students there are alternative pathways to success.

“We want to keep our students interested and connect them to the industry so they can explore all their options,” Derakhshan said. “I always tell my professor friends who work at other schools that their mission may be to get a Nobel Prize in science, but my mission is to train future Nobel Prize winners.”

Business owners who are interested in learning more about and applying to the program can visit