Science Bound celebrates 25 years of pursuing academic excellence

Science Bound's Learn and Earn is a month-long academic boot camp to help students prepare for the upcoming school year. Video by Dave Olson

AMES, Iowa – As much as Becky Gomez loved math and science as a kid, she never really connected her favorite subjects with what she might want to do when she grew up. Even when her mom encouraged her to join Science Bound, Becky says she initially thought it was just something fun to do after school.

Now the senior in industrial engineering recognizes how the Iowa State University program, which has empowered Iowa students of color to pursue degrees and careers in STEM fields for the past 25 years, helped fuel her passion into a future career. It all started with her eighth grade science fair project – a Science Bound requirement – and continued in high school with the opportunity to explore different STEM careers.    

“I found that I really loved the hands-on approach to science,” Becky said. “That got me interested in problem solving and finding a way to fix the world’s problems and helping other people.”

More than sparking an interest, Becky says without the high expectations set by Science Bound she might not have gone to college or done as well in her high school classes. Students must maintain a 3.0 grade point average every semester in high school; participate in activities to develop science, math, leadership and communication skills; and dedicate 40 hours every summer to academic development (see video above) or career exploration programs. Students who complete these requirements are offered a four-year, full-tuition scholarship (see sidebar).

“It’s important for our students to develop a passion for academic excellence,” said Connie Hargrave, an associate professor of education and Science Bound director.

Students selected for Science Bound are highly capable with what Hargrave describes as “untapped potential in STEM.” That’s why simply attending Science Bound activities is not good enough. Students must contribute, engage and add value to the program and everything they do. Hargrave says it’s important that they see other students of color excelling in school.

“Science Bound not only gives them the space to excel, but we expect them to excel. It gives them a place to belong in a community of young people who are smart, engaged, college bound and headed into demanding technical fields,” Hargrave said. “It’s important for all of us to see students of color excelling academically.”

A family affair

Becky Gomez has set an example for other students of color by volunteering at Science Bound Saturdays (see sidebar) and Countdown meetings, which help high school seniors prepare for college. But she’s had the greatest influence on her three younger siblings – all four are on campus this fall for one semester together.

Victor Gomez – the first to follow Becky to Iowa State – didn’t really share his sister’s love for science, or school for that matter, when they were kids. Victor says he was more interested in playing the guitar, but recognized Science Bound was an opportunity he shouldn’t waste and stuck with it. The support and push he got from teachers gave him the confidence to go to college and pursue a major he didn’t think he could do.

“It wasn’t my plan to be here or to graduate with a degree in electrical engineering. That’s a pretty big deal because that’s not something I would have imagined being able to accomplish when I was growing up,” Victor said.

Natasha and Thomas Gomez like to joke that Becky, Victor and their parents gave them no choice but to join Science Bound. Much like their older sister and brother, hindsight has made it easy to see how they’ve benefited from the program. Natasha remembers visiting the Body World exhibit as a freshman and how that led her to pursue a different major than her siblings.  

“I loved the exhibit so much,” said Natasha, a junior and pre-occupational therapy major. “I didn’t realize at the time that it was something I wanted to explore, but it really helped to expose me to different opportunities.”

Thomas, a freshman and pre-engineering major, says he’s quickly realizing how the organizational skills and focus he developed in high school will help him be successful in his first semester at Iowa State. “Science Bound has really taught me how to be a better leader and be a professional,” he said.

Coming home to ISU

Science Bound first brought Charles Stewart to Iowa State. He says the university’s commitment to structural biology and biorenewables research is what brought him back nearly 25 years later. Stewart was part of the first group of Science Bound students to graduate from Iowa State. Today, he manages the Macromolecular X-ray Crystallography Facility on campus and studies the 3D structure of proteins.

Stewart says his parents were instrumental in encouraging his love for science and getting him involved in Science Bound. He remembers visiting campus with his parents for Science Bound Saturdays and being impressed by the different experiments and things he could do in STEM.

“Students need to see how science impacts their everyday life,” Stewart said. “It allows them to see how they can use science to make their communities better, make their lives better or just foster their creative spirit.”

Stewart took advantage of the full-tuition scholarship for his undergraduate degree, before earning a Ph.D. from Cornell. While not all Science Bound students choose to attend Iowa State, Stewart says the opportunity to do so is a vital part of the program.

“It’s important to validate student curiosity by providing them with an environment to learn and wonder about how things work without any economic restraints.”