A Bridge to Simpson: Carver STEM Program Attracts Students to Campus

By Grace Peck ’18

Genevieve Block, George Saucedo and Manoj Rai have something in common.

They would not be studying at Simpson were it not for the Carver Bridge to STEM Success Program.

This program is a one-time grant opportunity offered to students who want to pursue careers in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) fields. It was named after scientist George Washington Carver, who began his academic career at Simpson College after being sent away from other schools because of the color of his skin.

The program makes it possible by providing as much as $8,400 a year for four years to students who qualify. Currently, 15 Simpson students are taking advantage of it. The program is funded by the National Science Foundation, with additional support from Simpson.

“It’s a tremendous help to the students that are brought in,” said Heidi Berger, an associate professor of mathematics and the project’s lead investigator. “They are hard workers who, without this program, probably wouldn’t be able to be at Simpson. It has such an impact on them.”

Other members of the research team include Derek Lyons, associate professor of chemistry; Clint Meyer, associate professor of biology and environmental science; Mark Brodie, associate professor of computer science; Bobbi Sullivan, director of Career Development and Civic Engagement at Simpson, and Don Evans, professor of psychology as well as the psychology department chair.

The students are paired with mentors from different businesses around the Des Moines areas, which provides them with networking opportunities and real-world experience. Mentors include Principal Financial Group, EMC, VCI/Intervault, Iowa State University and Norwalk Public Schools. Students also have extra opportunities like taking industry tours, hearing guest speakers and traveling to conferences.

Let’s meet some of the students who are participating in the Carver Bridge to STEM Success Program.*

If you had told Genevieve Block, a native of Hawaii, in high school that she would be earning her undergraduate degree in Iowa, she might have thought something was wrong with you.

“In high school I had never heard of Simpson until professor Rick Spellerberg (now retired) called me out of the blue to talk about Simpson and how great its math program is,” said Block, a sophomore majoring in actuarial science. “I found out about the Carver STEM program through Heidi Berger. She’s been one of my main influencers during my time here.”

Block praised the Carver Bridge program for its financial appeal and the other opportunities made available to students.

The program provides summer research experience for the scholars. Block got to spend last summer doing research at Simpson, discovering an interest in environmental science, which meant going out at four in the morning to collect samples from Iowa prairies, an entirely different setting from her native Hawaii.

“It was super fun, and got me interested in environmental science,” she said. “I want to be an actuary, but I would love to volunteer with environmental science research I got to be in Iowa prairies at 4 in morning trapping mice, an experience you just can’t get anywhere else.”

Block has participated in a mentorship program through EMC Insurance. She also just accepted a summer job with DuPont Pioneer as a data analyst.

There are social advantages as well, she said.

“I’ve developed close friendships and since we spend so much time together,” she said. “We had to come back a week before school started, and it was a lot of fun spending that time on campus together.”


It was her visit to Simpson that first attracted Sara Lawson of Bloomfield, Iowa.

“Something just clicked when I came here,” said the sophomore, who is studying actuarial science and Spanish.

Lawson learned about the Carver Bridge program during that visit, from professors who explained the benefits. With the financial support, as well as the opportunities it offered, Simpson became her top choice.

“It’s a pretty cool program, the only one of its kind that I know of,” she said. “With the mentoring opportunities and the project-based learning, I knew was getting more than just coursework.”

Lawson had originally come to Simpson with the intent of becoming a teacher.  She hadn’t considered herself a “math person” until she had begun taking the STEM classes. She realized she could do real world math problems, and is now looking into actuarial science, a subject she had never considered prior to arriving at Simpson.

She also has participated in the Dr. Albert H. & Greta A. Bryan Summer Research Program in Mathematics, which is funded by a generous donation from Simpson alumni. Her research project wasn’t tied directly to her Carver Bridge grant, but she said her experience with that group inspired her to take it on.

“The research I did was working in Mathematical billiards,” Lawson said. “It’s something that people would do in grad school, so getting to work with grad school topics as first- and second-year undergraduates was really cool.”


George Saucedo, a sophomore from the Chicago, also said he would not be at Simpson were it not for the program. He is a computer science major, and is working on some exciting new tech developments.

Saucedo first learned of Simpson from a college counselor who told him about the STEM to Success program, and the scholarship that came with it. The program was a giant draw; otherwise, he said he would have attended a college in the Chicago area.

“The program is really nice, it puts us with businesses in the area, and it gives me the chance to work with new tech and learn about what is new in the tech industry,” he said.

The Carver Bridge students say they enjoy the small class sizes and the intimate nature of the campus.

“I like that Simpson is small, and I have professors that focus on me and my needs,” Saucedo said. “I am getting to work on some projects with new technology that I never thought I’d have the opportunity to work on in person.”
Saucedo is currently working with physics faculty member Aaron Santos on a new project, and he gets to sit in on meetings and be a part of something other than academic work.


Manoj Rai was born in Nepal and moved to Des Moines eight years ago. He is a graduate of Lincoln High School.

He knew about Simpson, and had visited while a high school sophomore, “but I hadn’t strongly considered it until Heidi Berger came to visit and told us about this program.”

Now Rai is a sophomore at Simpson, majoring in biochemistry. He had a better offer from a large university, but Rai said Simpson appealed to him because the college promised more one-on-one interactions with professors.

“I have friends at big universities, and they do not get the same attention or experiences,” he said. “They have not been able to travel or do research outside of classes.”

Because of Simpson’s size, Rai found it easier to be involved in activities outside of his major. He is currently involved in ISO, or the International Student Organization, and also in the Sustainability Club and another club devoted to rock-climbing.

“Being here really exposed me to all the different things I can be doing or trying, and has helped me try my best to try and enjoy new experiences,” he said.

Like Block, Rai also participated last summer with the Iowa Prairies project, and he is now working on research with Derek Lyons.

“If I wasn’t in a small college where I can have one on one conversations with professors, I wouldn’t be able to have that connections and research opportunities,” Rai said.  “The Carver Bridge STEM program is one of the best ideas that Simpson has had. It has given me the opportunity to learn about what I actually want to do.”


A lover of sports and math, Ben Christensen, a sophomore, is using his Carver Bridge grant to pursue both interests.

Christensen knew about Simpson because his older sister attended. He had visited as well, and applied for the Carver STEM program.

But there was a problem when he first arrived on campus from his hometown of Malvern, Iowa.

He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do.

“This program has really helped with figuring out what I want to do with my life,” he said. “Not only do we take the classes, but we also get to visit the work places every semester in real life to see what it’s actually like to be, say, an actuary.”

After consulting with Berger, his advisor, he decided to take some more computer science classes, and has been enjoying them. His declared math and computer science as his major.

Like his peers, Christensen gets to participate in research projects year-round. For the spring 2018 Simpson symposium, Christensen along with Block and another student presented research on self- driving cars, and how they will affect car insurances.

Sports? Next year, Christensen will work as the undergraduate assistant for sports communications — helping set up for games, keeping track of game stats, and doing other duties that take place off the field. He also is coaching 9-11 year old volleyball, and participates in Simpson’s intermural sports, a great option for those who love to play but don’t have the time to join Simpson’s sports teams.

Though finding a job that combines sports and math will be tricky, Christensen feels optimistic about his future, knowing he has two more years of experiences at Simpson. “I am so fortunate to have professors who have helped me slowly figure out what I want to do with my future,” he said.


Bobbi Sullivan, director of Career Development and Civic Engagement at Simpson, said she seems many benefits from the Carver Bridge program.

“I believe a well-rounded Simpson College experience incorporates career education, service opportunities and professional experiences,” she said. “I enjoy connecting students with our community partners and helping them grow as professionals.”

Block, who will be graduating a year early, is grateful for her time in Iowa, despite the very different climate from her native Hawaii: “Overall the program has helped expose me to different career paths and sciences, while giving me a clear goal for my future.”



This material is based on work supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) grant #DUE-1458302.