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$500,000 NSF Grant Recognizes Computational Modeling Program

Oct. 18, 2007

Since 1920, Oberlin College has led all four-year, private undergraduate institutions in the number of graduates who earn PhDs in science. To help Oberlin continue to increase the number of well-educated U.S. scientists, the College has just received a five-year, $541,000 grant from the National Science Foundation Scholarships in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics program (S-STEM).

The grant will enable Oberlin to offer need-based scholarships to science majors with a demonstrated interest in computational modeling—high-end science skills that encompass a wide range of techniques ideally suited for studying complex problems in a broad spectrum of fields; they include such projects as modeling the spread of avian flu, simulating the details of chemical dynamics in the atmosphere, or modeling the Earth’s climate over the next century. Successful applicants will receive S-STEM financial assistance their junior and senior years.

The grant also will enable the scholarship recipients to access the expertise of some of the nation’s leading modeling specialists—faculty, post-docs, and graduate students—who will be brought in to teach courses on computational modeling with Oberlin faculty.

Oberlin is rare among U.S. undergraduate institutions in that faculty in nine departments are engaged in teaching and research in computational modeling. Aware that undergraduates who become skilled in the use of such powerful tools early in their careers will be better prepared both to enter the workforce and to proceed on to advanced study, the College’s science, math, and economics faculty established the Oberlin Center for Computation and Modeling (OCCaM) in 2006. The S-STEM project builds on the College’s institutional priority of expanding teaching and research in computation and modeling and developing the program as a national example at the undergraduate level for broad integration of such approaches across STEM fields and in the social sciences.

"Student interest in computation and modeling at Oberlin is high, and we want to provide opportunities for students to explore these techniques deeply and broadly,” says Francis D. Federighi Professor of Physics and Astronomy Dan Stinebring, director of the OCCaM, which has been charged with the administration of the S-STEM grant. “We are working to institute a Concentration in Modeling Studies at the College—a focus above and beyond a major—and hope to have it established by next year. It is designed to enhance students’ regular subject-oriented studies.”

“I am very happy that Oberlin received this award,” says Richard Salter, OCCaM member and chair of the computer science department. “It is not only a testimony to the Center’s mission, but it will also raise the overall consciousness on campus about computation and modeling. Computer science has become indispensable to scientific inquiry and is set to permeate science in a manner that is transformative—changing computing from a service discipline for the sciences into a fundamental paradigm for science in general. The grant will help ensure that Oberlin is at the forefront of this shift.” 

The NSF’s S-STEM scholarships are open to Oberlin biology, chemistry/ biochemistry, computer science, geology, math, neuroscience, and physics/astronomy majors who meet S-STEM’s U.S. citizenship/ residency requirements, have documented financial need, and demonstrate academic promise and an interest in computation and modeling.

“Students will be selected through the application process described in Student Selection and Criteria,” says Pam Snyder, director of the Office of Sponsored Programs; she worked with Salter, Stinebring, and Laura Moore, assistant professor of geology, on securing the grant. “Applications will be due each year in April, and students will be selected during the second semester of their sophomore year.”

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