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Bringing Science to Life Bringing Science to Life

Spartans of all disciplines team up to improve science literacy and empower learners of all ages.

As the need for improving science literacy grows in the United States, Spartan experts and educators across all disciplines are partnering to help ensure both student access and success and to help learners of all ages discover their inner scientist.

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Engineering opportunities for all

For many, science can feel like a foreign language not easily understood or translatable into simple terms. But the sciences are part of everyday life, and understanding scientific concepts enriches life in myriad ways—from observing the natural world and adapting to new technologies to discovering scientific connections in the arts and humanities.

Science literacy is increasingly important to academic and career success, with the number of jobs based in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) growing. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, STEM occupations are growing at twice the rate of others.

Science literacy also is important to U.S. competitiveness. To help ensure the next generation of students in the United States is prepared to compete, President Barack Obama has called for making STEM education a priority, saying that within a decade, American students must “move from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math.” 

MSU is leading crosscutting efforts to provide students from K-12 through college with a strong foundation in STEM learning, training educators on best practices for teaching these concepts and inspiring members of the wider community to embrace science at any age. Here’s the proof.

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Planting the Seeds

Developing the ability to grasp scientific concepts starts at an early age, and MSU is at the forefront of improving teaching and learning in the STEM disciplines for students in grades K-16.

The CREATE (Collaborative Research in Education, Assessment and Teaching Environments) for STEM Institute at MSU is a hub for innovation, research and intellectual collaboration. CREATE for STEM emphasizes collaboration across departments and colleges at MSU, as well as with universities and other research organizations across the country and around the world.

One of the institute’s breakthroughs: MSU faculty members played a key role in developing new K-12 science standards approved by the State Board of Education in Michigan in November.

CREATE for STEM leader Joe Krajcik and colleague Melanie Cooper, both Lappan-Phillips Professors of Science Education at MSU, were lead writers of the Next Generation Science Standards, which have been adopted by 17 other states.

“The new standards will transform how students learn by focusing on explaining phenomena or finding solutions to problems by using core disciplinary ideas, crosscutting concepts and scientific and engineering practices to better prepare them for success in college and science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related careers,” says Krajcik.

The institute currently has more than a dozen grant-funded projects under way, with total funding of more than $15 million in federal and philanthropic grants.

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Setting the Standard

Even some top-performing students drop out of STEM disciplines once they reach college due to inadequate preparation early on.

A 2015 study by RTI International found about a quarter of high-performing students pursuing bachelor’s degrees between 2003 and 2009 declared a STEM-related major, but nearly a third of the students transferred out of STEM fields by 2009. Researchers believe the dropout rate is due to students not having a sufficient STEM background when they entered college.

The MSU Dow STEM Success program was designed to help students who didn’t receive the pre-college math and science training they needed to pursue degrees and, ultimately, careers in science-related fields.

MSU’s Neighborhoods Initiative is playing a major role in the program. The innovative concept in on-campus living brings together a variety of student services under one roof, from advising and tutoring to health care, intercultural education and career planning. Students in the STEM Success program are clustered in two of MSU’s five neighborhoods to take advantage of concentrated professional and peer support and to foster communities of STEM scholars.

Another challenge for college students identified by the College of Education’s Cooper is an expectation to learn too many facts that do not connect across coursework or prepare them to apply scientific knowledge in their lives. She and her colleagues believe a set of strategies taking hold in K-12 schools can be used to improve learning in STEM during the first two years of college.

To that end, Michigan State has been transforming its gateway chemistry, biology and physics courses as one of eight universities participating in the Association of American Universities’ Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative.

“We want students to develop a deep understanding of core ideas they can build on and put to use, not just facts they can regurgitate,” says Cooper. “This is starting to happen for younger students, and there’s no reason it should stop at 12th grade.”

MSU faculty members from multiple science disciplines are practicing what they recommend for institutions across the country: working together with colleagues in their respective disciplines to decide what students should master in each “gateway” course and bringing active learning to large lecture courses that don’t typically inspire student participation.

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Teaching the Teachers

To improve gateway STEM courses, MSU is calling on faculty to take part in a program focused on effective STEM teaching and learning practices. As part of MSU’s STEM Gateway Teaching Fellows Program, faculty fellows participate in monthly workshops, a teaching and learning research project and ongoing meetings with a mentor in their discipline. By the end of the program, participants are expected to be able to identify disciplinary core ideas, crosscutting concepts and science practices that form the basis of the STEM Gateway curriculum.

In an effort to build long-term relationships with K-12 educators, MSU recently landed a three-year, $600,000 National Science Foundation grant that will extend MSU’s Research Experiences for Teachers (RET).

For three years, 11 MSU faculty members will be involved in leading-edge research and other professional development activities that will help them serve as faculty mentors to RET teachers.

“We will continue to develop a strong partnership between MSU and schools in the greater Lansing, Detroit and Grand Rapids areas,” says Wen Li, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. “Our goal is to train another cadre of leaders of middle and high school teachers in the STEM areas. We’ll recruit teachers from mid- and Southeast Michigan who serve socioeconomically challenged populations and students from groups traditionally underrepresented in science and engineering.”

Rebecca Anthony

As a faculty member in engineering, I see Spartans at every level reaching out to shape the next generation of STEM players. Students in STEM at MSU are going into fields such as education, where they’ll be directly involved in teaching students to love STEM. They’re also going on to jobs in industry, helping to innovate and build new technologies and solutions to global problems.”

— REBECCA ANTHONY, College of Engineering

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Painting a broader picture

The sciences don’t exist in a vacuum, and increasing awareness of the interconnection of science and art has required STEM education to evolve. STEAM education not only adds the arts to the sciences, but also deemphasizes the need to choose one area over the other. In examining the interconnections, MSU is bridging the gap by helping learners discover, for example, the science of photography, the engineering of design, the technology of fashion and the mathematics of music.

There’s growing evidence to back up the importance of embracing both the scientific and artistic. A few years ago, a team of multidisciplinary researchers at MSU studied a group of MSU Honors College graduates from 1990 to 1995 who majored in STEM fields. They found that those who owned businesses or patents received as much as eight times more exposure to the arts as children than the general public.

The research indicated 93 percent of the STEM graduates reported musical training at some point in their lives, compared to just 34 percent of average adults, as reported by the National Endowment for the Arts. The STEM graduates also reported higher-than-average involvement in the visual arts, acting, dance and creative writing.

Thanks to MSU’s collaborative culture and commitment to interdisciplinary study and research, Spartans demonstrate how the worlds of science and the arts co-exist, not collide.

University Distinguished Professor of Physics and Dean of Lyman Briggs College Elizabeth Simmons exemplifies the balance. During 2014-15, Simmons took on the role of acting dean of the College of Arts and Letters. Though an unexpected choice, the temporary appointment supports the belief that the sciences can benefit from the arts and vice versa.

“It’s important to pay attention in your life to both kinds of human knowledge,” Simmons says. “Personally, like many scientists, I’m also involved in music. I’ve always played instruments and been a singer all my life. A lot of scientists I know are involved in music or the visual arts. Finding those two sides of engaging with the world is really important.”

Spartans across all disciplines share this duality. Mark Sullivan, a composer and associate professor in the College of Music, helps students understand the science and mathematics connected to sound and music events.

Mark Sullivan

Music is math that happens. My goal is to show that math and science are interwoven with music and have been for a long time in some very fascinating ways.”

— MARK SULLIVAN, associate professor in the College of Music

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Bringing science to
the world

Spartans believe everyone can be a student of science, and MSU has been bringing science education to the wider community for decades.

In 1991, a group of 20 graduate students started MSU Science Theatre, with a mission of inspiring children and adults alike with the wonders of science. The student volunteers acquired funding from the National Science Foundation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Institute of Physics.

MSU Science Theatre has worked to improve science literacy with the use of interactive stage presentations and hands-on activities, performing shows around the state of Michigan. Every year, Spartan students entertain and educate crowds while serving as passionate ambassadors for STEM education and appreciation.

The MSU Science Festival is another example of MSU’s community outreach efforts. Each year in April, the festival brings together thousands of science fans from around Michigan, including curious minds of all ages. The free public event features more than 200 seminars, demonstrations, discussions, tours, guest speakers and hands-on activities on topics ranging from astronomy to zoology. Renee Leone, a former psychotherapist, artist and grade school teacher, founded the festival in 2013 after being inspired by her experience at the Cambridge Science Festival in the United Kingdom.

Mark Sullivan

MSU has world-class scientists and a curious community, the two most essential ingredients for a successful festival.”

— RENEE LEONE, MSU Science Festival cofounder and coordinator

The MSU Science Festival, which has grown in popularity each year since its inception and has expanded from East Lansing to include events in Detroit and across the state, is geared toward lifelong learners in the community. With family-friendly demonstrations, an early childhood zone and talks aimed at older students and adults, the festival has something for the scientist in everyone. Topics run the gamut from the evolution of Lake Michigan’s sand dunes and the inner workings of the nervous system to the science of color in art and the creation of music linked to concepts found in nuclear physics.

“The festival brings science professionals and the public together,” Leone says. “Complex concepts become accessible, and the ordinary reveals its connections to the extraordinary.”

The MSU Science Festival runs April 12 to 24, with events on the MSU campus and around the state.

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