Pritzker Molecular Engineering course offers STEM pathway for City Colleges students

Destini Coleman has wanted to study biology since she was a kid in Englewood glued to the Animal Planet channel. “Even then, I was always interested in knowing more and knowing why about everything,” she said.

Now earning her associate degree at Richard J. Daley College with a plan to transfer to the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Coleman is one of sixteen City Colleges of Chicago students in the first cohort of an introduction to molecular engineering course at the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago.

The course, designed to open pathways for more City Colleges students to transfer into four-year STEM degree programs, has been part of PME’s mission since the school’s 2019 launch with a $100 million commitment from the Pritzker Foundation.

“Some of our first conversations were about how we could show our commitment to the city by broadening the pipeline of underrepresented Chicago students into STEM majors and professions,” said Matthew Tirrell, dean of Pritzker Molecular Engineering and the Robert A. Millikan Distinguished Service Professor. “As the nation’s first school of molecular engineering, PME is uniquely positioned to introduce students to this emerging field.”

According to the National Science Foundation, in 2016 underrepresented minority students earned 22% of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees and 9% of doctoral degrees; in 2017, nearly 70% of full-time scientists and engineers were white. PME’s work to diversify those numbers also includes a number of educational outreach programs for K–12 students, including lab internships for students in the After School Matters program and a summer molecular engineering class for students in UChicago’s Collegiate Scholars Program.

A course tailored to students’ needs

The collaboration between City Colleges and UChicago is a true partnership, according to City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado. “City Colleges’ partnership with the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering offers our students exposure to world-class researchers in a cutting-edge field and helps create a pipeline of diverse and talented professionals for a transformative sector of our city’s economy,” he said. “I can’t wait to see how this innovative collaboration between City Colleges and UChicago faculty and staff grows over time.”

Faculty from Harry S Truman College were integral to the development of the course. “The City Colleges faculty know best what their students need,” said Rovana Popoff, PME’s senior associate dean and acting dean of students, “so our role was to work with them to understand the needs and how we could help.” A selection committee made up mostly of City Colleges staff chose the cohort from a pool of thirty-two applicants.

Slated for three weeks on the UChicago campus in the summer of 2020, the course became a two-week virtual program meeting in January because of COVID-19 disruptions. The next session of the course will begin in August 2021. Lectures, discussions, and interactive lab demonstrations introduce students to topics in immunoengineering, quantum engineering, and materials systems for sustainability and health—all integral to PME’s focus on creating new solutions for issues such as energy storage, clean water, and treating illness.

Students also receive advising around college readiness and admissions to help them prepare for transfer to four-year colleges, plus a $1,500 stipend. They get to know faculty and graduate students who can provide mentoring and advice during and after the program; Coleman is especially enthusiastic about her conversations with a PhD student who has shared what it is like to conduct research.

“Before the program, I wasn’t super interested in doing research, but now I have a different perspective,” she said, adding that she’s looking forward to applying for a lab assistantship at PME after pandemic restrictions are lifted.

“When you’re applying to a four-year program, lab experience is important,” explained Popoff, “and you need specific study skills as well as a knowledge of what to expect in terms of engagement in the classroom and the lab. We’re covering all of those topics in the course in addition to its academic content.”

Coleman wants to explore the molecular and cellular biology field further at UIUC, but is thinking about pursuing research into sickle cell disease, an inherited blood disorder that affects her siblings. “This [PME] program is helping me push my limits,” she said. “If I keep going, eventually I’m going to do something groundbreaking.”

—Article originally published by the Office of Civic Engagement.