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STEM lab to expand to another course in fall semester

2020-03-16-STEM-Lab-1
Funded by the University System of Georgia's (USG) Complete College Georgia initiative, the STEM lab has proven so effective for five years it is expanding to a full academic year, with STEM 1001 in the fall and STEM 1002 in the spring. Dr. John Leyba, interim dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, said the USG STEM IV initiative has awarded $150,000 to UNG for the project.

When University of North Georgia (UNG) faculty members noticed students leaving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs, they devised and implemented an innovative lab to retain them.

In a three-hour STEM lab during the spring semesters, freshmen and sophomores learn about biology, chemistry and physics from a trio of faculty members teaching as a team. Students collaborate on real-world issues, conduct research projects and compare their lab work to that done by professional scientists.

"They are learning the techniques that scientists are actually doing in the field," said Dr. Royce Dansby-Sparks, associate professor of chemistry at UNG and one of the faculty members who taught the STEM lab. He has ceased work with it since becoming director of the Honors Program on UNG's Dahlonega Campus. "Students also learn soft skills such as how to work on a team and oral communication skills that they don't learn in a traditional chemistry, biology or physics lab."

Funded by the University System of Georgia's (USG) Complete College Georgia initiative, the STEM lab has proven so effective for five years it is expanding to a full academic year, with STEM 1001 in the fall and STEM 1002 in the spring. Dr. John Leyba, interim dean of the College of Science and Mathematics, said the USG STEM IV initiative has awarded $150,000 to UNG for the project.

"The money will allow us to expand the STEM lab to the fall semester," he said. "It also will allow us to add a significant research component this spring."

Leyba explained STEM lab students must find a mentor in biology, chemistry, mathematics, or physics and develop a research proposal. Students will present their ideas to a panel of three faculty members near the spring semester's end. The panel will decide to fund some of the projects.

"We will fund probably half of the projects," Leyba said. "This will allow us to pay the student and the professor stipends, and allow us to pay for the supplies for the research for up to two semesters."

Dr. Jeremy Olson, lecturer of chemistry who replaced Dansby-Sparks in the STEM lab, said while the written proposal is required, performing the research is not.

"But they want to do it, and they would get paid to do research," he said, adding it will help students who plan to apply for graduate school. "Very few students have experience writing a research proposal, especially as a freshman."

Dansby-Sparks said research projects conducted in the STEM labs have proven beneficial in more ways than one.

He pointed to the success of UNG alumna Caroline Brown as an example of the impact the STEM lab and undergraduate research can have for students who are trying to find their place in the STEM field. Brown participated in the inaugural STEM lab as a freshman, which is when Dansby-Sparks noticed her aptitude for research.

"Caroline Brown came in as a biology major and she jumped ship to biochemistry," he said. "Now she is getting her Ph.D. in cell biology at Yale University."

The STEM lab also is producing its desired results of retention. Dansby-Sparks said 58 percent of students who participated in STEM lab have remained in STEM fields after four semesters. For students in traditional labs, 42.9 percent remained in STEM fields.

"The students are also self-reflective and indicate they find the context meaningful," Dansby-Sparks said. "They are also ahead of their peers in the junior and senior level."

Leyba explained the STEM lab is also in line with the College of Science and Mathematics expansion plans. Once the two STEM lab courses are established as a sequence for spring and fall semesters, it will be implemented on the Gainesville Campus in 2021 followed by a learning community there.

"All of this has motivated us to apply for funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institution," Leyba said.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute is a science philanthropy whose mission is to advance basic biomedical research and science education for the benefit of humanity. It is one of the largest private funding organizations for biological and medical research in the United States.

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