New UO center rooted in degrees for students seeking STEM careers

The goal is clear: Double the number of college degrees in science, technology, engineering and math awarded in Oregon by the year 2030. But how do we get there?

STEM is "Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics"

Oregon business and education leaders set the target in response to a national problem with student proficiency in STEM studies and a shortage of qualified college graduates pursuing those careers. And a new center at the University of Oregon has accepted the challenge, building sweeping partnerships to improve education and training for future STEM technicians, scientists, engineers and mathematicians.

Dean Livelybrooks with students in a physics labThe University of Oregon Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math Careers through Outreach, Research and Education — UO STEM CORE — partners with educators, school districts and industry to improve instruction and secure funding for new programs and initiatives. The center's faculty and researchers will use their expertise in technical fields and instruction to help educators in public schools provide primary and secondary students with the skills they need for STEM careers.

"STEM CORE works with teachers and students to answer questions about how scientists and engineers routinely use math, or how sensors and computers are used in industry research labs," said Dean Livelybrooks, a tenured senior physics instructor at the UO and a faculty leader for the center. "Developing student understanding of STEM careers and their societal contexts — along with exposure to cool science, of course — will better motivate learning STEM content in the classroom."

Each year, about 1 million high school freshmen declare interest in a STEM-related field — more than 1 in 4. By the time they graduate, more than half will lose interest in a STEM career.

This is worrisome given science and engineering jobs are projected to grow at more than double the rate of the overall U.S. labor force through 2018, according to STEMconnector, a resource for STEM education.

Technology industries, science research and engineering practices are changing rapidly, and even teachers with past experience working in STEM industries can find their knowledge base outdated, Livelybrooks said.

Meanwhile, teachers must teach to ever-changing STEM content standards, with student knowledge assessed via high-stakes testing, which can come at the expense of showing students what it looks and feels like to be a scientist or engineer.

"The goal is to produce a broader and deeper pool of STEM talent in Oregon," Livelybrooks said. "We also want to target underrepresented groups such as girls and women, first-generation college attendees and minority students."

While overall interest in STEM majors and careers among high school seniors is increasing, male students are more than three times more likely to be interested in STEM majors and careers than female students.

Collaboration and Outreach

Jill BaxterAt the university level, the center is working with the College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Education to ensure that future teachers shape their classrooms with a mind to research-based and industry-relevant instruction. Jill Baxter, an associate professor in education studies, is also a center co-leader.

The center will improve STEM curricula for grades 1-12 with an infusion of state-of-the-art technical equipment and out-of-class opportunities. University researchers will also help with grant proposals for new programs that leverage center-coordinated activities and engage teachers in professional development through training, web-based tools and workshops.

For example, the center has teamed up with Eugene, Springfield, Bethel and other local school districts and industry partners for a series of hands-on projects with real-world applications to ignite student interest in STEM careers. Under this state-funded, two-year program called "Content in Context," teachers receive training to support research- and industry-modeled curricula for grades 5 to 10.

Industry and government partners include biotechnology company Life Technologies, the city of Eugene, the Eugene Water and Electric Board, the Oregon Department of Energy, electric-vehicle maker Arcimoto, Autohaus service center and Lane Transit District. Engineers, scientists, technicians and analysts from those organizations make their work sites, projects and expertise available to inform teachers, collaborate on student projects and provide career-related experiences for students.

"Magnets, Motors and Sensors," for example, showed fifth- and sixth-graders how this technology is used everyday. For "Green Schools Built for the Extreme," high school freshmen and sophomores will learn to collect and analyze data on the seismic hazards and interior climates within their school buildings.

Upcoming outreach projects funded through this Oregon Department of Education math/science partnership grant include:

• "Solar Challenge: Designing, Testing and Racing Solar Electric Vehicles" — grades 7 and 8, Feb. 22 and 26, Bailey Hill Center, 4J Eugene schools, presented by EWEB school coordinators and Arcimoto. Students design, build and race small-scale solar photovoltaic-powered electric vehicles while learning the physics of motion and forces, torques and gears, and how photovoltaic cells convert sunlight into electricity.

• "Biomimicry: Adaptations for Survival" — grades 5 and 6, March 11-12, presented by UO science and product design faculty. Teachers learn how designs, inspired by how organisms have adapted to their ecosystems, are used to develop products, such as Velcro, that benefit society. Students, meanwhile, experience another context for studying plants and animals.

• "Green Schools Built for the Extreme" — grades 9 and 10, April 26 and 30, Springfield Public Schools, presented by the UO and Oregon Department of Energy. Teachers learn how to use seismometers deployed in schools to estimate how school sites would shake in response to a large earthquake, and then how engineering analyses are used to determine seismic hazards for individual schools. Teachers and students will use sensors and loggers to characterize school building performance in keeping occupants comfortable and productive, and thus inform future remodeling to address seismic risks and energy inefficiencies.

• "Building Nano-worlds" — grades 9 and 10, May 10 and May 14, at Bailey Hill Center, 4J, presented by Life Technologies and the UO. Teachers will experience how biotechnologists and materials scientists use scanning electron microscopes, fluorescent imaging and ubiquitous gel electrophoresis techniques to understand how molecules and machines work at nanoscales, down to a billionth of a meter. They will develop student projects that employ these technologies.

UO STEM CORE is located in 146/148 Willamette Hall and is funded by the UO departments of biology, chemistry, geological sciences and physics, with matching funds from the College of Arts and Sciences.

For university faculty and staff who run outreach and research programs throughout the academic year and summer, the center will provide services such as program coordination, school liaisons, event planning, participant recruitment and publicity. There is no fee to join STEM CORE, and the center does not divert funding from other programs to the center.

Membership for the 2012-2013 year includes roughly 20 professors from departments in the College of Arts and Sciences; six from the College of Education; and officials from 10 Oregon school districts, Lane Education Service District, four community colleges and the center's industry and government partners.

(Written by Matt Cooper)