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Helping Undergrads Bloom

There is an old saying:  "I hear, and I forget. I see, and I remember. I do, and I understand."

Experiential learning has been shown to help students learn concepts much more effectively than simply reading about a subject. Coupling experience with reading then makes what we read more easily understood and meaningful, as many of us appreciate from our own learning experiences. After all, if you do something often enough, that "something" will eventually become second nature.

Most of the learning strategies being developed for today’s undergraduates in the STEM fields, which includes analytical science, are being geared toward a generation of students whose learning abilities are visually based, compared with the reading-based learning of baby boomers (such as I) and previous generations. The technology-oriented society in which we live is partly to thank for this. STEM undergrads today have greater opportunities than their predecessors to engage in experiential learning activities. From journal clubs to undergraduate research experiences, scientific seminars and the formation of scientific learning communities, opportunities abound.

All of these activities are associated with their own benefits for the students. Journal clubs, for instance, allow the students to develop skills for the critical appraisal of published research, while participation in research experiences allows students to gain exposure to scientific practice. What’s more, each of these program elements facilitates social interaction. The only issue is that money is needed to make these helpful undergraduate programs happen.

I’m reminded of another well-known saying: ‘Experience is the best teacher’.

So, how do colleges and universities go about obtaining the money to fund all of this? They apply for funding, the source of which is public (governmental), private, or a mix of the two; colleges and universities have access to lists of potential funding sources for STEM projects that fall into all of these categories. Of course, these grants do come with stipulations on how the funding may be used, and those stipulations vary from donor to donor (whatever these stipulations may be, donors must make the grant applicant aware). A well-prepared grant application, based on a well-thought-out idea for a project to enhance undergraduate performance in a STEM discipline, can lead to the acquisition of funding and a successful program – and well-prepared future members of the STEM workforce.

Presentations from the Pittcon 2019 workshop on grant-funded STEM programs for undergraduates highlighted innovative project ideas that build the intellectual foundations of STEM undergrads and also explored the financial support needed to make these programs a reality. My campus’ S-STEM (Scholarships in STEM) grant from the US National Science Foundation not only made it possible for its principal investigators to examine the effectiveness of science learning communities on academic performance among STEM undergrads and their retention in their majors, but it also provided scholarship funds for the cohort of students who met the requirements of our NSF-funded grant program.

Thinking on this, I’m reminded of another well-known saying: "Experience is the best teacher." With this in mind, please consider the following: how will you and your institution contribute to building tomorrow’s STEM workforce? 

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About the Author
Mark T. Stauffer

After taking undergraduate analytical chemistry in the mid-1970s, Mark Stauffer was convinced that analytical chemistry was the type of work he wanted to do as a chemist. “It was a combination of seeing how chemistry can be employed in a practical, useful, and helpful sense…plus, it uses lots of math, which I also enjoy.” Stauffer was firmly convinced of this after working in an industrial R & D analytical laboratory for a major chemicals manufacturer during the 1980s. “In mid-1991, I left industry to pursue an advanced degree in chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh, my undergrad alma mater. I consider this decision to be one of the best, if not the best, I’ve made so far.” By the time he completed his doctorate in 1998, Dr. Stauffer wanted to pursue an academic career in analytical chemistry, at a primarily undergraduate institution. Additionally, his already strong interests in data analysis led to a strong interest in chemometrics and the use of various software for analytical data treatment. Leap ahead to 2015 – “I’m an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh’s Greensburg, PA regional campus, teaching undergraduate analytical chemistry and instrumental analysis, mentoring undergraduates in research projects involving determination of metals and nonmetals in a variety of sample types, offering a short course on analytical data treatment at Pittcon, and offering in the current semester a course in chemometrics for chemistry majors at Pitt-Greensburg for the very first time. I’m doing exactly what I had hoped for all these years!”

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