The National Science Foundation awarded Concordia College a grant worth almost $500,000. Heidi Manning, the division chair of sciences and mathematics and associate professor of physics, received confirmation of the award on Sept. 9.
Manning said only about half of students who start their education at Concordia with interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers actually go on to earn a degree in that particular field. Concordia’s proposal sets a plan to increase the number of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) graduates the college produces by 20 percent in the course of the five-year grant period.
“Our main emphasis is to work on first year science courses,” Manning said. “Let’s keep them interested in science majors.”
The NSF receives funding partially through revenue from work visas for foreign employees. The NSF then distributes funding to education programs that propose creative ways to increase the number of U.S. graduates of STEM disciplines. The program is called the STEM Talent Enhancement Program.
The grant will provide opportunity for STEM departments to adapt their curriculum to the students’ needs. Bryan Luther, professor of physics, discussed his plans for the physics program. Luther said many physics students, both majors and non-majors alike, struggle through their first physics course.
“One of the biggest stumbling blocks is just the math,” Luther said. “Their math is just not up to speed yet.”
Students who are taking introductory physics often take calculus in the same semester, but they do not learn the math required for physics before they need it. The physics department is developing a supplemental math class to help physics students. The course would be taught as an optional night class during the first block of the semester.
“[The math class] is primarily about what they need to get through physics,” Luther said.
The physics department will also change the structure of its courses to a hands-on learning environment called studio physics. Luther said the introductory physics courses will have short lectures of 10 to 15 minutes, followed by labs that immediately apply the concepts learned in class. In order to make this teaching method practical, the department will purchase laptops and devices that measure motion, force, temperature and pressure. While the current equipment may be acceptable in a lab, the new program requires equipment that is more mobile and high-speed.
The grant will also allow the college to create a new course that introduces students to STEM vocations. Instructors would bring in people who work in interesting and atypical professions so students know can grasp a better understanding of how what opportunities are available to them with their degrees.
Manning said this is important because many students don’t come from communities where they can see STEM professionals at work. Manning grew up in Fergus Falls, Minn., where she said there weren’t many people who could be role models for careers in science, other than education.
“I don’t know if there were any physicists working in Fergus Falls,” Manning said.
Susan Larson, director of undergraduate research and associate professor of psychology, led the effort to provide research opportunities for first-year students. Just over half of the grant funds will be allocated for this purpose. Eight first-year students will be chosen each year.
“There is value in early undergraduate research,” Larson said. “We hope to be able to affect a large number of students over the period of the grant.”
Some other renovations include a combined biology and chemistry lab for pre-health majors who take both courses in the same semester. There will also be funding available to bring in a guest lecturer each year.
Faculty are currently working on adjusting their curriculum and expect to begin the transition in the classroom next fall. Current first-year students will be able to apply for the summer research program during spring 2011.
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