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David Asai listens as UD senior biological sciences student Fanta Kalle explains her undergraduate research involving heparin.
Of all the students who begin college with
an interest in a STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) field,
only 40 percent graduate on time and in a STEM discipline. Among
minority groups, the loss is even greater; only 20 percent remain in
STEM through graduation.
An October symposium at the University of Delaware brought
nationally known speakers, along with faculty members from UD and other
institutions, together to discuss this problem and other issues facing
STEM education in the 21st century. And the location of the symposium —
UD's newest building, the Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering
Laboratory (ISE Lab) — was cited as holding part of the answer to
attracting and retaining successful STEM students.
"This building is our investment in how we think students learn
best," said George Watson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
Calling ISE Lab "a very learner-centered environment," Watson said that
the relatively small classrooms and their connected instructional labs
mean that "the instructors know all their students and all the students
participate in learning."
A physics professor, Watson founded the University's Institute for
Transforming Undergraduate Education in 1997 and is a pioneering
advocate for problem-based learning. That instructional method, which
emphasizes the development of critical thinking skills by having
students solve real-world problems, is supported and promoted by ISE
Watson told the symposium audience that the "I" in the building's
name could just as easily stand for "integration" or "innovation." ISE
Lab, he said, integrates instruction and research, fosters integration
among different disciplines, and integrates the real world of scientific
discovery into the classroom.
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Some of those attending the symposium take a look at ISE Lab's 3-D projectors and special screen to visualize images of the human body.
In addition to focusing on new facilities and methods of educating
students in STEM fields, universities must also ask, "Who will be
learning in buildings like this?" said David Asai, a featured speaker at
the symposium. Asai, senior director of undergraduate and graduate
science education programs at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, urged
institutions of higher education to think in new ways to retain STEM
students, particularly members of underrepresented minority groups.
"Diversity is really good for science," he said, as the increasingly
complex problems in research demand more varied perspectives to solve
them. The good news is that the U.S. population is becoming more and
more diverse, Asai said, but the bad news is that America is failing to
take advantage of this talent pool.
African American and Latino students enter college with a rate of
interest in STEM disciplines that is similar to the freshman population
as a whole. But five years later, some have not yet graduated and some
have dropped out of school, but the majority have changed to a non-STEM
major, leaving only one in five of those who started out in STEM to
graduate in that area.
Universities must do better, Asai said. He encouraged faculty members
to take responsibility for keeping their students in STEM by setting
high expectations and offering minority students the same opportunities
as their peers, as well as listening to their students' views and
concerns about diversity.
He also suggested replacing the often-used model of a "pipeline" that
takes students directly from high school through college and doctoral
studies without interruption. Instead, he used the metaphor of a
watershed, in which students come to college to study STEM from a
variety of backgrounds — community colleges, the workforce and the
military, for example.
Other speakers at the symposium were Jeanne Narum, founding director
of Project Kaleidoscope and founding principal of Learning Spaces
Collaboratory, which encourage the design and development of an
intellectual, physical and organizational infrastructure that supports
strong learning in STEM fields; Louis Gross, director of the National
Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis, who also was
involved in the National Academy of Sciences Bio2010 report,
"Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists";
and Jay Labov, senior adviser for education and communications for the
National Research Council, who has been the study director for numerous
reports on improving teaching in STEM fields.
Those attending the event also had the opportunity to tour the
building and visit locations where students, faculty and preceptors
demonstrated the kinds of instruction and research happening in ISE Lab.
The building, which opened for classes this semester, was formally dedicated on Oct. 17.