Bio engineer student Melody Tan, 22, holds her project as global health technology student Rohan Shan, 22, Stephanie Tzouanas, 22, and Monica Barrera, 21, view results as Team Biliquant test their project at the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen at Rice University on April 14, 2014, in Houston, Tx. Photo: Mayra Beltran, Houston Chronicle / © 2014 Houston Chronicle
Photo: Mayra Beltran, Houston Chronicle
Bio engineer student Melody Tan, 22, holds her project as global health technology student Rohan Shan, 22, Stephanie Tzouanas, 22, and Monica Barrera, 21, view results as Team Biliquant test their project at the Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen at Rice University on April 14, 2014, in Houston, Tx.

Carmella DeSerto grew up in the tiny northwestern Wisconsin town of Chetek. Her father was a middle school science teacher, and her mother worked in a nursing home.

Their blue-collar incomes couldn't cover the rising cost of most colleges, so when it came time to apply, DeSerto said she was looking only at schools her family could afford.

Despite Rice University's $54,000 sticker price, it was DeSerto's top choice. That's because Rice - which covers costs for students from families making less than $80,000 a year, so they don't have to take out loans - gives out millions annually for students whose families couldn't otherwise afford to send them to an elite private school.

"Financial aid, of course, really sealed the deal in deciding it was my top choice," DeSerto said. "It's pretty substantial financial aid. I come from a pretty low economic background, and a large majority of my tuition and fees and room and board is covered."

Raising money to keep paying the way for students like DeSerto is one of three goals of a new Rice success initiative. Launched just two years after Rice brought in a record $1.1 billion in a capital campaign, the initiative aims to attract and support a more diverse student body, and to get those students real-world, hands-on experiences while they're in college.

Rice President David Leebron said the effort is a response to the changing nature of higher education. College students come from increasingly diverse backgrounds. The passive learning of large lecture halls, meanwhile, has lost ground to active, hands-on learning experiences, especially for in-demand fields like engineering and other sciences.

"I think in the old model, you went to higher education, you learned a lot, then you went to the workplace and learned about the world and then you got productive at some point," Leebron said. "I think now, both our students and the people who employ them expect people to be much better prepared."

The university estimates the initiative will raise hundreds of millions of dollars. With an undergraduate student body 30 percent larger than it was a decade ago and a sticker price that's grown just as much, it's become costly for Rice to cover every student in need. The university's $5.5 billion endowment covered 54 percent of aid to undergraduates in 2007. It now covers just 28 percent.

Getting needy students enrolled and covering their cost to attend is just one of the intitiative's goals. Rice also wants to expand out-of-classroom experiences for students. The university plans to clone the popular Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen, a laboratory for engineering students to work on inventions. In some cases, those inventions have made their way into the real world before the students did.

In 2010, for instance, students created a device for doctors in a teaching hospital in Malawi that partners with Rice. Malawi has one of the highest premature birth rates in the world, and the device can keep those infants breathing.

Typically such devices can cost upwards of $6,000, but the students' invention - made from a shoebox, aquarium pumps and a water bottle - cost just $150. The device went through a clinical study and has since been perfected and is used in 19 of 27 hospitals in Malawi.

University officials want to expand those opportunities to other disciplines. The design kitchen is influencing the plans for Rice's new arts building, for instance. The $30 million Moody Center for the Arts is set to open next year, and Rice wants it to have a kitchen of its own. The university is also looking at putting a similar space in the Biosciences Research Collaborative building.

"We're now seeing more conversations - even the humanities - asking what are the spaces that foster creativity," Leebron said. "That's a kind of shift."

Rice also is eliciting work opportunities for students - ideally from successful alumni, Leebron said.

The university already partners with a number of organizations around town to give students internships, including in the Texas Medical Center, which DeSerto said was another big draw to Rice.

"I wanted to be somewhere I could easily find internships and job shadowing - the Texas Medical Center is right across the street," she said.