Supporting Minority Students at University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR)
The SOARS Program, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR)
The SOARS Program is an internship and mentoring program hosted at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, with a mission to increase the number of students from historically under-represented groups who enroll and succeed in graduate programs in the atmospheric and related sciences. Since 1996, up to 24 students from diverse backgrounds participate in SOARS annually and join the large SOARS alumni network as they move into graduate school and STEM careers.
Keys to Success
- SOARS recruits undergraduate students from most majors who are interested in the Earth sciences.
- SOARS has a formal holistic mentoring program that supports students as they moved from undergraduate into graduate programs.
- SOARS combines multi-year summer research experiences with intensive mentoring and a supportive learning community to help undergraduate students gain research experience, complete college and make successful transitions into graduate school.
Attracting New Students
SOARS invites students from many disciplines–including meteorology, chemistry, physics, engineering, mathematics, ecology, and the social sciences–to apply their expertise to understanding the Earth's Atmosphere. In particular, SOARS seeks to involve students from groups that are historically under-represented in the sciences, including Black or African-American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Hispanic or Latino, female, first-generation college students and students with disabilities. SOARS welcomes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students; students who have experienced, and worked to overcome, educational or economic disadvantage and/or have personal or family circumstances that may complicate their continued progress in research careers.
Supporting Our Majors
A central feature of the SOARS program is a ten-week summer program in which protégés conduct scientific research at UCAR or at laboratories of other SOARS sponsors such as NOAA, the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science (CIRES), the University of Colorado at Boulder or the NSF-funded Center for Multi-scale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes (CMMAP). This summer experience offers benefits such as gains in personal/professional skills, increased ability to "think and work like a scientist," clarification or confirmation of career plans, and increased enthusiasm for learning and working as a researcher.
A unique and important aspect of SOARS is its strong, formal mentoring structure. Mentors provide relevant resources, transfer necessary skills, advise about career options, introduce protégés professionally, assist in career placement, and provide inspiration and personal support. Each SOARS protégé is supported by up to five mentors: a science mentor to guide research practice; a writing mentor to improve scientific communication skills; a computing mentor to help the protégé learn the computing skills necessary to complete their project; a coach to help develop solutions to challenging situations; and a peer mentor, a protégé who has participated in the program in previous summers. All five mentors model effective scientific and professional practices.
The SOARS community is based on the principle that learning is a social activity which is enhanced in settings based on common learning goals. The SOARS learning community is designed around a critical mass of 20-24 diverse students living together, working on related scientific projects, and collaborating to develop and refine their leadership, professional, and communication skills. All protégés in Boulder live in the same apartment building, with new protégés sharing housing with returning, more experienced protégés. SOARS encourages and nurtures this community through its strong peer mentoring program, team-building activities, and extensive coaching on interpersonal issues. The guiding philosophy of SOARS in fostering a diverse learning community is to closely monitor the community and provide tools and support to protégés as they encounter difficult experiences. The SOARS learning community has proven to be an important source of comfort and information by bringing together protégés and alumni. This network supports protégés as they move into the larger national and international atmospheric science community.
Writing and Communication Skills
Each summer, protégés attend a weekly seminar designed to help them learn scientific writing and communication skills. The content of the workshop is organized around the sections of a scientific paper. Workshop topics include citing sources, introducing relevant literature, writing an introduction, preparing a compelling abstract, discussing results, designing effective figures, and writing illuminating conclusions. Discussions of scientific ethics were also conducted, with particular focuses on plagiarism, data fabrication and falsification, and authorship. Writing mentors guided protégés in applying the ideas from the workshop to the protégés' required summer scientific paper, poster and presentations. The 2012 SOARS colloquium and poster session attracted a large number of people, and protégés appreciated the opportunity to present and discuss their work. These events also served as preparation for the protégés' presentations at national conferences.
An original and continuing goal and challenge of SOARS is to contribute to a diverse next generation of leaders in the atmospheric and related science. For this reason, SOARS emphasizes leadership skills that leverage scientific expertise which include time and stress management, setting expectations, working across differences, and managing group dynamics. SOARS provides both direct instruction and hands-on practice. The direct instruction occurs primarily in the orientation and training that precedes the summer research experiences. The real learning, however, occurs in the application of these skills throughout the course of the summer. SOARS offers multiple opportunities for protégés, especially returning ones, to demonstrate leadership during the summer by serving as peer mentors to new protégés, co-chairing seminars, leading elements of the orientation for new protégés, and consulting with the SOARS program office in ongoing efforts to improve the program.
Because conference attendance and presentations are key parts of the life of a scientist, SOARS funds student participation in national and regional conferences. SOARS protégés present first at student-centered conferences like the AMS Student Conference, or the National Conference of SACNAS. These conferences, which emphasize strong mentoring and encourage student research, introduce protégés to the broader scientific community. More experienced protégés attend conferences such as the Fall Meeting of the AGU or disciplinary AMS conferences.
Undergraduate to Graduate Bridge
A fundamental value of the SOARS program involves supporting protégés for multiple summers. A protégé can participate in SOARS for up to four years, pending satisfactory academic and research progress. Typically, protégés begin SOARS in the summer after their junior year; these four summers and year-round support span the critical transition to graduate school. For the undergraduate protégés, interacting with new graduate students provides an important and unusual opportunity to hear frankly about the challenges of graduate school. For NCAR and UCP, the four-year span of the program provides a vehicle to develop or nurture collaborations by supporting research projects that integrate both university and NCAR/UCP researchers. For example, science mentors often serve as undergraduate and graduate thesis committee members.
SOARS provides comprehensive support for the summer experience; protégés receive a competitive wage, housing, and round-trip travel to Boulder. These funds and housing are provided to make SOARS competitive with other internships and, more importantly, ensure protégés are not forced to take non-STEM summer jobs to finance their undergraduate education. SOARS also provides tuition assistance funds to protégés through their undergraduate years and into their first two years of graduate school. The funding from SOARS represents a "last dollar" for the protégé, and is awarded to complement other funding sources. This is particularly important in graduate funding, because we do not intend for SOARS funding to undermine the financial commitment a graduate school makes to its graduate students.
Preparing Students for Careers
By the time SOARS protégés move onto graduate school, they are well prepared to be successful in graduate research. They have not only gained hands-on research experience and strengthened their scientific writing and computing skills, they have also developed a professional network. This network of supportive peers and mentors has proven to be one of the key benefits for our protégés as they move forward in their careers. Many of our students come from smaller colleges without established research programs who may not automatically be linked in with faculty mentors, collaborators and future co-authors. Matching SOARS protégés with NCAR scientists has allowed them to enter existing networks and establish new ones between SOARS alumni and current protégés. SOARS is proud of their alumni, the vast majority of whom go on to excel in graduate school and move on to careers in atmospheric science or related STEM fields. Many of our alumni have entered academia as post docs, junior faculty, or as researchers at national research labs. Others are employed at federal intuitions such as FEMA, or the EPA. A few alumni serve as K-12 teachers or are employed in the private sector for consulting firms, the re-insurance industry or private weather companies. They remain connected to the SOARS community, committed to the SOARS mission of increasing diversity in the sciences, and play an important role in increasing the strength and diverseness of the STEM workforce.