CSUF News Service

New Course Teaches Students to Stick With STEM

Wearing gloves, a mask and armed with a scraper and solvent, freshman Brianna Widman, along with classmates, got on her hands and knees to remove chewing gum from concrete floors and stairwells.

In the hallways of the building, another group of students measured interior ambient lighting to determine if lighting levels are optimal by industry standards.

These in-the-field projects are part of a new course this fall semester for first-semester science and mathematics students, "Introduction to Learning and Thinking in Science and Mathematics."  The students are conducting hands-on investigations and collecting data on campus issues, in collaboration with Facilities Management's “Campus as a Living Lab” grant program.

The course was created for Cal State Fullerton's ASCEND STEM program, an effort developed to increase success, retention and graduation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics majors. A similar course also began this semester for entering freshmen undecided on an engineering major.

ASCEND STEM is part of the California State University STEM Collaboratives Project, made possible with a $4.6 million grant from the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust.

The science and math course focuses on University acclimation, study and learning strategies and quantitative reasoning, said Kathryn Bartle Angus, lecturer in literacy and reading education who co-teaches the class with Kim Norman, lecturer in mathematics.

"We're combining experiential learning practices with an authentic problem-solving activity that requires data collection, research, quantitative reasoning and presentation of findings," said Bartle Angus.

Most of the students who leave STEM majors do so in the first two years of study, added Norman. "We lose one in four students — and that's too high. Through this course, we want to keep them interested."

For the gum-removal project, students experimented using a propane-powered machine and compared the time it took to remove gum using solvent and scraper versus the "Gum Wand" machine.

"Through this course, we're not only getting to help solve campus problems, we're getting different opportunities and research experience in the real world," said Widman, a first-generation college student. "It's helped me to figure out what I want to do next. Now I know I want to do research."

Other campus projects the students are undertaking include assessing the feasibility of capturing gray water from restroom sinks for alternative uses, such as irrigation, and examining records and performing data analysis of campus police vehicle emissions and potential cost savings.

Robert A. Koch, special assistant to the provost and acting chair of electrical engineering, who directs ASCEND STEM, said that the course instructors have created innovative approaches to offer students an array of activities that teach them to quantify nearly everything they do.

"They're providing settings where the students can become aware of why and how they learn — all culminating in a practical problem that is part of the 'Campus as a Living Lab' program," Koch added.

"Judging from the student comments, they are growing more and more comfortable with who they are as students and gaining confidence in their ability to succeed in their science or math major. I'm looking forward to seeing the data on how their learning power has changed as a result of their experience in the class.”

For math major and first-generation college student Carlos Contreras, in addition to the project work, the freshman says the course has given him insights on how to be a successful STEM student. "These are tough majors, and this course really focuses on ways to improve your study skills. It also helps you to not lose interest — and stay with your major."

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