BGSU, Owens get grant to produce more scientists

Bowling Green State University is teaming with Owens Community College to address a goal that’s easy to state and offering a challenge to meet.

It’s “fairly ambitious,” says Dr. Moira van Staaden of a national business-backed goal of doubling the number of college graduates in the sciences by 2015. “But we need to do it.”

The associate professor of biology at BGSU and a colleague from Owens, Dr. Anne Bullerjahn, hope to do their part as directors of a project funded by the National Science Foundation for up to $2.2 million over five years. Science, Engineering and Technology Gateway Ohio (SETGO) is expected to encompass several hundred Bowling Green and Owens students and faculty in a three-pronged approach to generating more scientists.

The national need stems from an aging work force in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields, says van Staaden, whose project co-director at BGSU, Dr. Tracy Huziak-Clark, an assistant professor in the School of Teaching and Learning, will assess its effectiveness.

While the number of jobs requiring at least a two-year degree in the STEM disciplines is expected to increase by 2020, the number of American college graduates in those fields is declining, van Staaden explains. “It’s not just an Ohio problem, but it’s particularly acute here because education is problematic in Ohio,” she adds, noting that Ohio is in the bottom half of states in its percentages of both STEM graduates and residents with at least a two-year degree.

Research has shown that many students who enter college in math or the sciences but then leave those disciplines do so because they weren’t prepared for the college-level content they encountered, van Staaden says. So SETGO will begin with a five-week “bridge” course at Owens, taught by Owens faculty, to bolster incoming students in math and science, including chemistry and biology.

Owens students sometimes start there thinking they’re not interested in science, says Bullerjahn, a professor of math and life/natural sciences, but “with this grant, we can say, ‘Do we have a program for you!’” The bridge course will provide an opportunity to learn about different branches of science—also including ecology, for example—in a lab-based, hands-on setting.

“I think if we can tap into that interest and show the aspects of science they’ve never seen before, it will take off for them,” she predicts.

Students in the bridge program will be in cohorts of 24, which are further divided into study groups of six people working closely with a peer teaching assistant. Three other Owens faculty members are also involved with the bridge program, which, van Staaden points out, is modeled after BGSU’s successful Academic Investment in Math and Science (AIMS) program for young women and students of color.

“What we’re trying to do is recreate the social and academic support connections that AIMS is so good at providing and put it in a framework that will work for a broader demographic,” she says, noting that Owens students are often older than the traditional college-age students served by AIMS.

Following the summer bridge program, SETGO students—who must be American citizens—will be part of a BGSU-based, academic-year learning community called the Art of Science Community. It’s so named because evidence elsewhere suggests that students with other creative interests and outlets tend to be more successful in the sciences, and institutions attracting such students can increase their graduation rates, van Staaden says.

The learning community will host monthly meetings of faculty and students, to be held alternately at BGSU and Owens, with the theme “Building a Better Environment.” The two-hour meetings will cut across the sciences, with one hour devoted to a scientific presentation with broad appeal followed by an hour of social programming, according to the Bowling Green biologist. Video podcasts will be part of the meetings as well, allowing more students to participate at some level, she says.

Faculty—along with BGSU undergraduate and graduate students—can serve as mentors to the Owens students, many of whom the directors hope will transfer to Bowling Green to complete four-year degrees after two years at the community college. “This provides a mechanism for them to transition to BG if they have the desire to do that,” she says.

Bullerjahn points out that BGSU will afford the students more opportunities for research experiences—the third element of SETGO. The idea is for students to work in faculty members’ labs during the summer following the academic year in the learning community. The project’s success will depend largely on how many faculty get the students involved with research that piques their interest, says van Staaden, adding that many of her science colleagues already do a “splendid” job of it. The grant offers funds to faculty for materials, as well as student stipends.

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(Posted July 23, 2008 )