Jul. 26—MORGANTOWN — Tyler Coulter, of Charleston, climbs out of the water in high weeds in the West Run Watershed on a recent summer day.
His blue jeans are wet after straddling the stream along with West Virginia University professor Jason Hubbart, director of the Institute of Water Security and Science in the Davis College of Agriculture as they collect data about the stream as well as water samples.
"I fish a lot, so I'm used to it," Coulter said.
Coulter, who will enter WVU this fall, is one of 15 students who are getting to do hands-on research even before classes start as part of a two-week program called Summer Immersion Experience. Coordinated by WVU's Office of Undergraduate Research with support from the National Science Foundation's First2 Network, the residential progam provides science, technology, engineering and math experiences to first-generation and underrepresnted students from rural West Virginia.
"I was just looking for any opportunity to do research and I heard about First2 Network," Coulter said.
Coulter and fellow program participant and in-coming freshman, Easton Cahill of Bridgeport, are learning how to compare water quality findings as they study "Land Use Impacts on Water Quality, an introduction to hydrology with Hubbart.
Summer Immersion is unique in that the student mentors stay with students on campus to oversee research activities and plan recreational activities in Morgantown.
Students get to take part in presentations dealing with responsible research conduct, resume building and mental health resources. Participants also get to have dinner with undergraduate research staff, instructors for first-year and second-year STEM courses and alumni all with the goal of helping program participants understand the structure of campus life and what it takes to be a successful student.
After taking part in Summer Immersion in 2019, Jordan Means, of Elkview, now serves as a student mentor, something she said she is grateful to do.
"I struggled a lot because I was a first-generation college student," said Means, one of four WVU student mentors. "Now that I've figured it out, I want to make sure that I bring the ladder down to other students to help them along the process."
Last year's in-person program was canceled and held virtually instead due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The last day of Summer Immersion is July 30.
As a team, Coulter, Cahill and Means take part in field trips to a local stream or river site where they collect water quality data and have lessons on how to estimate streamflow before heading back to the lab. In the lab, they focus on analyzing data in preparation for a final presentation about the effects of development on water quality at the end of the two weeks.
"You can read about something, but actually doing something is how I like to learn," said Kaylyn Gootman, a post-doctoral research associate who is working with Hubbart and the students. "They need to get their boots, get out in the field and collect the data that will tell that story."
Other research projects include neuroscience studies in the department of biology, metal-catalyzed coupling reactions in the C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry and biometrics in the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering.
"To some students, the college environment is unfamiliar and scary. Giving them a chance to experience college life without being graded or assessed helps them overcome their fears and primes them for success from day one," said Michelle Richards-Babb, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research.
"We expect that they will become familiar with the university environment, knowledgeable about its resources and comfortable speaking with faculty and staff. In addition, they will have built a cohort of like-minded students who are interested in STEM, are intent on succeeding in college and facilitate and celebrate each other's successes."
Funded by the National Science Foundation, the First2 Network began as a pilot project in 2016 to address student success in science, technology, engineering and mathematics since data at the time showed only about 30 percent of graduating high school students who declared STEM majors in college went on to graduate with STEM degrees.
The Summer Immersion Experience is part of that larger effort.
"Hopefully, they're inspired to keep in touch. A big part of this is having that STEM contact early and often," Gootman said of the participants who, in her view, are getting a head start on careers. "As I move through my career, I want education and outreach and building that next generation of scientists to be at the forefront of what I do."
For Means, the student mentor, such connectedness is key.
"As first-generation college students, we are very resilient," Means said. "I hope the students leave with a community that they know they can come back to during college."
Reach Eric Cravey at 304-367-2523.