OSU looks at creating center focused on science, technology learning

Federal officials frequently emphasize the need for the United States to stay competitive in science and technology – and math and science students are often pointed to as the hope for the country’s future.

That topic also has been on the minds of Oregon State University faculty and staff, 75 of whom met during the last week of the 2010 school year to discuss new ways to promote science, technology, engineering and math (“STEM”) education at OSU.

The level of interest in STEM displayed at that meeting spurred Deans Sherm Bloomer, College of Science, and Sam Stern, College of Education, to move forward with the early steps toward creating a STEM Learning Center, a place where faculty and staff from across the university can come together to work on research related to STEM learning.

“The STEM Center is an important part of the unique partnership between our College of Education and the College of Science,” Stern said, “that is positioning OSU for leadership in STEM and cultural and linguistic diversity.”

Sherm Bloomer agreed.

“I’m really excited about the opportunity the Center presents to pull together people from across OSU who are engaged in thinking about STEM education across the lifespan,” he said. “This is an area where we have a lot of expertise and can make a real impact on the national debate about effective practices.”

One of the first steps to create the center was to select an interim director, and John Falk, Sea Grant Professor of Free-Choice Learning in Department of Science and Mathematics Education, was named for the position. It is Falk’s role to help craft a proposal for the center’s creation, which will go before the Research Office in late spring. He is working with a steering committee comprised of faculty from the Departments of Physics, Chemical/Biological/Environmental Engineering, Electrical Engineering/Computer Science, Psychology, Education, and Science & Math Education.

“There are a number of people across the university who are interested in research on how people learn STEM. The issue is historically they’ve been scattered, so there may be one person in physics, a couple in math, some in forestry,” Falk said. “Nationally there is a push toward increasing STEM literacy and widening the pipeline to STEM careers. It would seem that the key to accomplishing that is better understanding of how those processes work.”

If the center is approved, it will initially be a place where interested faculty and staff can convene informally to collaborate, write proposals, pursue funding and learn about what people in other departments are working on in relation to STEM learning.

“It is an effort to create a physical reality to this shared interest and bridge the isolation that has occurred historically on campus,” Falk said. “There hasn’t been a vehicle for bringing people together, and this is really that kind of vehicle.”

While there is already a department on campus dedicated to STEM education, the center will be much more broadly focused, with an emphasis on cross-college collaboration. Possible focuses can range from improving undergraduate education, or supporting and enhancing the science and engineering pipeline at the precollege level, or around issues of lifelong learning, and how OSU prepares students to be lifelong science learners.

“A majority of OSU students aren’t going to have careers in science,” Falk said. “For many of them these will be the last science classes they take. So what should be in the last classes they take?”

There will be a series of campus wide forums on April 7-8, 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., 400 Waldo to discuss the creation of the STEM center. Falk said he’ll be seeking faculty input through Spring term before submitting a proposal to the research office on May 1. If the center is approved he hopes the center will be officially established this summer, with significant kickoff activities rolling out next fall.

“Everyone who potentially has an interest in research in STEM learning can find a place at this center to find colleagues, to collaborate on projects and potentially develop proposals and attract research money,” Falk said. “The first step is to open doors, build bridges and be a convening place. It’s not that there is a pre-specified list of who should participate. Ultimately it will be a matter of who is interested.”

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