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Center Seeks to Generate Increase in Math, Science Students

Fri., Feb 05

A new center at Southern is ready to help lead the Greater New Haven educational community into an exciting mission crucial to the nation's future - to boost the number and quality of students pursuing careers within the mathematics and sciences orbit.

The need for a greater number of college graduates with degrees in the math, science, and technological fields has been expressed with increasing urgency by education and governmental leaders. In fact, the National Science Board has just released a report indicating that while science and engineering are strong in the United States, the nation's global primacy in those fields has fallen significantly in recent years with increasing competition from East Asian nations, such as China.

Southern seeks to meet the 21st-century education needs of the workforce, and the creation of the Center for Excellence in Mathematics and Science is one such endeavor. After preparing the groundwork, the center is now prepared to launch a barrage of initiatives.

Lara Smetana, an assistant professor of elementary education who was recently named as the center's director by DonnaJean Fredeen, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, has outlined the following new programs associated with the center:

  • The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $600,000 grant for the creation of a Pathways to Academic Excellence (PAcE) program, in which 26 outstanding high school and community college students wishing to pursue math, computer science, biology, chemistry, physics or earth science will receive full 4-year scholarships to Southern. The program will start this year with the recruitment of high school students, and by the third year, will reach out to community college students.

  • NSF has selected Southern as a pilot site for the Family Engineering Program, which will introduce parents and elementary school-aged children to the world of engineering. Southern students will travel to five area schools this spring to coordinate fun, hands-on activities for parents and children to demonstrate the importance of engineering in everyday life. It is a partnership that includes Michigan Technological University, the Foundation for Family Science, and the American Association for Engineering Education.

  • The center has created the Southern Women in Mathematics and Science (SWIMS) program, designed to provide support for women interested in those fields. Females have traditionally been underrepresented in math and science. The program will provide faculty mentor support to Southern students, while Southern students will serve as mentors for K-12 students. It will include guest speakers, activities and opportunities to recognize the success of students.

"We are very excited about all of these programs, as well as others we have planned," Smetana says. "There is a burgeoning need in the workforce -- such as in the teaching, engineering and scientific fields -- for college graduates who have an expertise in the math and sciences. I believe half the battle in meeting that need is in encouraging more students, particularly at the K-12 grades, to explore these disciplines."

Joe Fields, associate professor of mathematics and a coordinator of the PAcE program, agrees."I believe that offering full scholarships to outstanding students might be the impetus for them to opt for a degree in math and science and to decide to attend Southern," Fields says. He notes that the university is able to offer mentoring -- both from an academic standpoint and in introducing them to a variety of careers. Fields also says a special effort to recruit students from New Haven and Bridgeport high schools will be made so that students with economic need are made aware of the PAcE program's opportunities.

Fields and Smetana thanked their colleagues for their assistance with the center, particularly Karen Cummings, professor of physics, for writing the PAcE grant proposal.

Smetana says the center also will seek to breakdown psychological, cultural and social barriers to pursuing math and science. "For a variety of reasons, some students just don't believe they can excel in these two subjects," Smetana says. "In some cases, it's because of a gender stereotype. In some cases, it's an issue of limited access to strong role models, supportive environments and post-graduate opportunities. In other cases, it's just a psychological hurdle that might have been generated from a bad past experience in a math or science class. One of our aims is to help students remove these hurdles and allow them to develop their potential."

Smetana, a native of Cleveland, is in her second year at Southern. She previously taught at the University of Virginia and is a former eighth-grade physical science teacher in Alexandria, Va. She is a former volunteer at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.