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Student Input Will Boost College-Level STEM Programs

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Frank Jacobitz delivers AAAS’ Pacific Division keynote address. | Andrea Korte/AAAS

Students in science, technology, mathematics, and engineering need to take an active role in shaping their coursework and exploring ways to address real-world problems, said the president of the AAAS Pacific Division, which is meeting 14-17 June in San Diego under the banner of “Engaging Science.”

“Start a discussion in your department about transforming courses, changing the curriculum. Talk to your university administration about implementing high-impact practices,” said Frank Jacobitz, president of AAAS’ Pacific Division and professor of mechanical engineering at the University of San Diego’s Shiley-Marcos School of Engineering, in an appeal to students. Jacobitz made the remarks in the keynote address for the annual meeting’s opening plenary on 14 June.

Engaged students make a deeper psychological investment in learning and take pride in understanding the material, internalizing it, and incorporating it into their lives, Jacobitz said. Universities can spur student engagement by cultivating an atmosphere of inquiry that encourages students to ask questions, he added.

“They get the idea of what it means to be a scientist making and testing hypotheses,” as well as “the idea of taking risks and learning when something fails and that it’s OK to fail,” he said.

2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the Pacific Division’s first independent meeting of scientists. The inaugural 1916 meeting drew Albert Einstein who had published a year earlier his general theory of relativity that included the prediction that the universe’s colliding black holes and exploding stars distorted space time, something known as gravitational waves. The first evidence confirming that Einstein prediction was discovered earlier this year.

Blending a science curriculum with community service is one way that the University of San Diego engages students, Jacobitz noted. Students work on international projects like one in which engineering students designed a toilet seat to make it easier for Ugandans injured by landmines to use the types of toilets prominent in the eastern African nation, and on projects closer to home like one in which science students helped restore San Francisco’s Presidio habitat.

Participation of undergraduate students in research is another way to increase student engagement – as early as possible in their college experience, he said. Jacobitz has served as a faculty adviser for research undergraduates working on projects such as the simulation of blood flow in the network of veins in the muscle and connective tissue in rats.

Undergraduate research allows students to master multiple skills such as making use of primary literature, testing hypotheses, and communicating results, Jacobitz said. They are also more independent and self-confident and are more certain about their career paths, he added. Encouraging students to start research early also benefits the institution by decreasing the numbers of STEM students who leave the program, he said.

Jacobitz praised the steps being taken by other institutions in the Pacific Division to improve student engagement. He cited work by faculty and students at the University of Colorado-Boulder to modify coursework to promote student engagement. For example, to reach educational and engagement targets for a physics course, university officials consulted educational research and identified and implemented techniques such as hands-on learning and inquiry-based education. The changes boosted conceptual problem-solving abilities among students, Jacobitz said.

Jacobitz also endorsed “bridge programs” that bring college-level science to high school students, such as the UCLA HHMI Pre-College Science Education Program that is designed to help minority students gain a necessary education to enter STEM fields. The program, now in its 10th year, has led to nearly 100 students to present science, engineering and technology projects during the Pacific Division annual meeting, Jacobitz said. This year, 10 students will present five posters during a session on  15 June.

“In my view, engaging in science and engineering is about community. You need people to work with, you need to communicate ideas, bounce them back and forth. That creates a community of teaching, learning, and sharing,” Jacobitz said.

[Associated image by Andrea Korte/AAAS]