STEM initiatives advance F-M universities

by Mattie Hanson

The National Science Foundation estimates that 80 percent of jobs in the coming decade will require math and science skills. Accordingly, schools around the nation are making STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education offerings a priority. In K-12 and higher education alike, schools are building complexes and establishing new programs to make way for more prominent STEM initiatives. F-M institutions have claimed their own roles in the STEM revolution.

In 2006, MSUM renovated Langseth Hall, adding new equipment to fit more STEM-focused curricula. Its STEM departments continue to evolve today.

In January, MSUM was awarded $1.2 million from the National Science Foundation’s Robert Noyce Scholarship program that helps prepare STEM teachers. The program funds higher education initiatives that attract talented science and math majors pursuing careers in teaching at the K-12 level.

Alison Wallace is one of MSUM’s program’s four principal grant investigators. Others include Tim Harms in mathematics, Steve Lindaas in physics and astronomy and Linda Houts-Smith in history, languages, critical race and women’s studies.

“As principal investigators, our job was to create, refine and execute these programs,” Wallace said.

Some ideas include establishing summer internships in which science and math students work with school kids and other partnerships with area schools. The investigators decided to offer experience with English language learners, too, to better prepare scholars for their careers.

Wallace’s work with the program’s five-year grant facilitates the licensure of approximately 35 new science and math teachers through the Noyce scholarships.

The new STEM teachers will be able to teach anywhere in the nation, Wallace said.

“MSUM has a very strong and consistent record of producing quality teachers,” Wallace said.

MSUM departments are committed to recruiting more students with interests in STEM programs. As surrounding colleges upgrade their classrooms for STEM education, Wallace said similar changes are possible in MSUM’s future.

Concordia is upgrading its science department and adding a new STEM building by fall 2017. The private college received a $3 million donation from Sanford Health at the beginning of the year to help fund the construction of its $45 million complex.

Concordia currently has two science buildings, Ivers and Jones, that were built more than 30 years ago. The new, yet-to-be-named STEM building will replace them on the corner of Eighth St. and Twelfth Ave.

“It’s about time to renovate and build a building that reflects modern science pedagogy and the direction science is going,” said Darin Ulness, Concordia’s division chair for sciences and mathematics.

The two science buildings have been vacated, leaving science professors like Ulness setting up temporary offices in old dorm rooms and holding labs in the college’s old dining area.

“The facility staff here has done a remarkable job of preparing spaces for us to still deliver the type of education we want to deliver,” he said.

The new STEM building will give professors the chance to redesign their courses, Ulness said. He’s eager to break out of lecture-heavy lesson plans and build on opportunities for group work and further use of technology.

“(The complex) will allow a lot of fundamental changes in how the classes are taught,” Ulness said. “We hope that this brings science alive for people who enter the building.”

NDSU welcomed a new $29.4 million STEM building of its own in January. 

Warren Christensen is an assistant professor of physics at NDSU who helped make the new STEM building a reality. This semester, Christensen is teaching a first-semester calculus-based physics course in the building.

Always a supporter of flexible classroom space, he’s happy to teach in a building condusive to active learning methods.

“It was designed to be a new and larger building to help increase enrollment in the chemistry and biology lab courses here at NDSU,” Christensen said.

“There is a preponderance of evidence in research that students learn more through instruction that utilizes active engagement activities,” Christensen said.

The STEM building holds 23 labs, 13 study areas and nine classrooms, which aim to provide active engagement that didn’t exist before.

Faculty is still learning and adjusting to the new teaching strategies, but  Christenson is just happy the building is doing so well.

“So often, plans for a building like this can be really well-planned and discussed, and then somehow what you get out at the end is something completely different,” he said. “It’s a joy every day that I get to walk into a building and facilitate the learning of my students.”

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