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Northwestern University

A Head Start in Science

Bio&ChemEXCEL program helps position incoming science students for academic success

For five weeks in the summer of 2013, then-incoming Northwestern first-year student Faith Ogungbe swapped time with high school friends and traditional summertime revelry for intense academic courses, conversations with Northwestern faculty and trips to University research labs as a participant in the Bio&ChemEXCEL program.

Three years later, Ogungbe, a rising senior pre-med student majoring in anthropology, considers it a wise trade.

 “The Bio&ChemEXCEL program has been one of my main supports at Northwestern and has given me access to many resources, wonderful friendships and beneficial relationships with faculty members that have been very helpful to me,” Ogungbe says.

The residential summer program for incoming students interested in majoring in biology, neuroscience, chemistry and other biomedical sciences provides academic preparation, leadership training and a support group designed to fuel student success.

Since its launch in 2011 following a grant from The Howard Hughes Medical Institution, nearly 125 students have participated in Bio&ChemEXCEL, many of them first-generation college students from low-income backgrounds or with limited AP preparation.

Skills to spur success

Over five weeks, students take four courses — calculus, chemistry, biological research highlights, and leadership — designed to prepare them for the typical course load of a pre-med student or science major at Northwestern.

“The goal is to model what students’ first year at Northwestern will look like and to teach them the skills, like time management and critical thinking, that will help them be successful as a college student,” says Luke Flores, the assistant director for first-year and transition programs at Weinberg College who has led Bio&ChemEXCEL since its 2011 debut.

In the leadership course, for instance, students divide into three groups and are challenged to solve a world problem using synthetic biology. Tasked to create a research proposal, the students have full charge of the effort, from defining the problem they will attack to delegating responsibilities and research.

“It’s a way for these students to learn about collaboration and the research process in a way they likely have never experienced before,” Flores says.

Beyond the classroom

In addition to the classes, students also visit research laboratories, a local pharmaceutical company, the Feinberg School of Medicine and Chicago’s Field Museum, as well as meet with Northwestern faculty and staff members in scientific fields.

“As one important piece of this program, we want students to see faculty as approachable and to feel empowered and informed regarding the available resources on campus,” Flores says.

And the six-year-old program is producing results.

According to Flores, Bio&ChemEXCEL participants are more likely to continue at Northwestern and graduate, many of them earning or on track to earn degrees in science or social science majors.

“We are seeing these students stay interested and engaged in science, which is precisely the goal,” Flores says.

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