PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
Linda Roberts Phipps
F21 Class of 2005 Statement
Question: What should the STEM learning experience be in the first two years so that students are motivated to persist in the study of STEM fields, become STEM majors, and pursue careers in STEM fields?
Undergraduate students come into the university environment with a broad background of information on many subjects. In most colleges and universities, this broad spectrum of knowledge is enhanced through the first few years of a general education curriculum. As a college student approaches the upper division courses of their major and their last two years of study, they have acquired a body of useful information on a wide range of subjects, but have little knowledge of vocation or specific career tracks. The mindset of these students is much the same as that of a junior or senior high school student: “When will I ever use this information? Why do I need to know this?”
Most college students spend their academic career checking off a list of required courses without ever connecting to the idea that this information, this course, is providing them with the foundation for a future career – certainly without ever inciting in them a passion for the field of study. In the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, it is particularly difficult to overcome this mindset and to fire a passion for the field in students during their first two years of study. The body of knowledge in the STEM field, more than almost any other, is expanding at an exponential rate. Entire areas of knowledge and study exist today that weren’t conceived of just a few decades ago. In addition, these areas of knowledge are not generally easily understood and readily accessible to the uninformed student.
It is almost impossible to imagine a faculty member entering an introductory STEM class and presenting information that represents “cutting edge” research and technology. Students need a firm grasp of fundamental concepts before they can truly understand the complex science and technology that represents STEM research today. Traditionally, students are not presented with this type of advanced information until they reach their upper division or graduate classes. Yet, how do we excite and motivate students about courses of study and careers in the STEM fields if we never present the information that excites and challenges those of us in the field? The challenge is to overcome this dichotomy.
The answer, of course, is that we must find a way to connect the truly exciting and fascinating work that is being done by scientists today to the material that we teach, even on the introductory level. We can use current progress in the field as a framework around which we build our basic concepts, even if we cannot discuss that current progress in depth. In order to excite and motivate the majority of students, we must move beyond the bare concepts of atoms and molecules, acids and bases, bonding and orbitals, to the frontiers of science that are building upon these theories. In addition to providing a richer classroom experience, most students will retain information more efficiently if they have a context in which to place the information.
We must also assist our students in visualizing themselves in scientific positions and careers. Unfortunately, many academic professionals have never held jobs outside of the academic arena. The task of preparing students for and exciting them about job markets that they have never experienced is difficult. In my particular case, I have professional experience in local government, environmental enforcement, private industry, and professional trade organizations. I try as much as possible to communication anecdotes and stories about these professions to my classes, in conjunction with the appropriate classroom material. In the absence of personal experience, the incorporation of case studies could serve much the same purpose. This allows students to visualize how the information and subject matter they are learning is being used in the “real world.” In addition, the incorporation of real research, instrumentation, and analysis into lower division classes is pivotal in exciting students about the possibilities inherent in science.
I recently incorporated a research project being conducted by a local environmental group into sophomore and junior chemistry labs. We performed analysis of asiatic clam shells from a local river to determine whether or not the organisms were being affected by lead contamination. Real research and analysis of this type, particularly during the first two years of study, allows students to envision themselves in these types of careers.