Profs voice support for more undergrad science research funding

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

At a faculty forum Tuesday sponsored by the Faculty Executive Committee, the Undergraduate Science Education Committee heard feedback from professors on its proposals for promoting undergraduate education in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math.

The 20-person committee consists of eight students and 12 faculty and administrators working in those areas, known as STEM fields. The event was intended as a venue for professors outside the committee to express their opinions about a draft of the committee’s upcoming report, titled “Improving Undergraduate Education in the STEM Fields at Brown.” The forum, attended by about 30 professors, did not include voting or any formal motions.

A final version of the committee’s report will be released at some point in May, said Karen Fischer, professor of geological sciences and chair of the committee.

The committee’s recommendations focus on the areas of curriculum, research opportunities, advising efforts, academic support and admission. Forum participants expressed particular concern over research opportunities for undergraduates.

A draft of the committee’s upcoming report recommends increasing “the number of University-funded undergraduate summer research positions by 50 per year, with a target total of 450 across all fields for the year 2012.” The recommendation is contingent upon continued demand from students and sufficient space to accommodate them in research projects.

Associate Dean of the College and Dean for Science Programs David Targan ’78, a member of the committee, said professors may have already exhausted available funding from external sources like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Such professors would benefit most from an increase in the number of University-financed Undergraduate Teaching and Research Awards granted each year, which would make more summer research opportunities available to students.

In addition to increasing the number of UTRAs granted, the committee also advocated measures to make UTRAs sufficient to cover expenses for students on financial aid with summer work expectations. The draft report suggested increasing the UTRA stipend from $3,000 to $4,000 or subsidizing University housing for student researchers.

Professor of Chemistry Richard Stratt said student research at Brown is a successful and important part of the University. “It’s criminal that students go wanting for undergraduate research opportunities,” he said.

Jan Tullis, professor of geological sciences, said she expected alumni donors would be enthusiastic about supporting undergraduate research.

Other forum participants said they were concerned that junior faculty members have fewer resources for hiring summer researchers.

The report also suggests offering multidisciplinary courses to attract more students. One proposal recommends adding sections to certain introductory courses that would be taught by faculty members from outside of the course’s field, such as an engineering professor teaching a section of an introductory biology course.

Professors at the forum discussed possibilities for reducing attrition of STEM concentrators after students complete introductory courses and, more generally, increasing retention in those fields by increasing academic support for current and entering students.

The report also recommends offering summer programs to teach study skills, providing refresher courses in core areas and holding an orientation for incoming first-years interested in STEM fields.

The report also discusses implementing a Supplemental Instruction program to target courses that have a high drop rate. SI is a nationwide instruction program with its national office at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Associate Professor of Engineering Thomas Webster, a committee member, said SI would recruit seniors to lead regular informational sessions in courses they have mastered and support younger students by guiding them through the material and teaching them organizational and study skills.

Webster said SI has substantially increased retention rates for women and minorities in science courses at other universities where it has been implemented.

Professors at the forum seemed receptive to the admission proposals mentioned in the report, which included increasing the scientific focus of admission literature and creating special publications targeted at students with a demonstrated interest in science. Committee members said they hoped to raise Brown’s profile as a “science school” among potential applicants and their parents.

Faculty members at the forum offered some of their own suggestions for improving undergraduate STEM education at Brown. These included keeping track of talented high school students who participate in scientific summer programs at Brown and supporting measures that would find science-oriented students from local high schools and channel them into Brown’s admission process through a University-sponsored club.