A new program set to launch in fall 2023 will help high-achieving, low-income Fresno State students earn bachelor’s degrees in computer science. The Undergraduate Scholar Education and Research (USHER) project was recently awarded $1.5 million from the National Science Foundation – funds that will support $10,000 in annual scholarships to 28 full-time Bulldogs. 

Computer science faculty member Shih-hsi Liu will oversee the project, which will fund 17 freshmen for four years and 11 transfer students for two years. All the transfer students will be from Fresno City College.

“This provides opportunities to underrepresented students who otherwise would not have them,” Liu said. “Our goal is to help these students become research ready and give back to their local communities.”

Dr. Christopher Meyer, dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, called the award “outstanding,” an accomplishment that “significantly adds to [the college’s] substantial portfolio with NSF that includes research, education and the integration of teaching and interdisciplinary research for student success.” 

The project will measure the societal impact of students’ research by helping them establish what Liu calls “STEM Impact Identity.” STEM is the popular acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“It allows scholars to see a path to giving back to their home communities through research projects,” Liu said. 

Faculty mentors will work with students to draft a career blueprint that matches their research interests in data science with real-world problems like local water supply, crop management and software for the deaf and hard-of-hearing in the Hmong community. 

“The STEM Impact Identity is a core feature of USHER,” Liu said. “It creates a new generation of computer scientists.”

That new generation, Liu hopes, will go beyond theoretical peer research into more practical applications that will keep students engaged and involved in bigger issues.

“The key words are ‘broader impact,’” Liu said.

The award is a milestone for the Department of Computer Science at Fresno State. It marks the first such STEM scholarship award for the department from the National Science Foundation, according to Liu.

Another facet of the project aims to provide a clear, well-supported path toward degree completion, since retention rates are lowest in the first and second years of college. Liu said frequent and early interventions will be a hallmark of the project.

“During the first two years, we will closely monitor their performance every other week,” Liu said, but the intensive support won’t end there. Liu added that students in their third and fourth years will benefit from exit services and experiences designed to make them both research- and career-ready.

Longer-term, Liu wants the project to be a standard-bearer for further initiatives. 

“My ultimate goal is that these students would utilize the USHER experience to give back to their local communities,” he said. “I hope the success of this project will bring in more resources to support more talented, underrepresented computer science students, and that this could become very impactful for the entire Central Valley.”