Educators and advocates from a variety of local and Southern Nevada institutions came together on Feb. 10 for the inaugural UNLV STEM Education Meet, a first in a series of events focused on K-12 through graduate STEM and STEAM education.
In a great show of collaboration, representatives from across UNLV’s campus were joined by neighboring NSHE institutions (NSC, CSN, and DRI), with others coming from charter schools; the Clark County School District (CCSD); the Governor’s Office of Science, Innovation, and Technology (OSIT); and the Southern Nevada Regional Professional Development Program.
Representatives from OSIT provided information about their current STEM education and workforce initiatives. OSIT is in collaboration with CCSD to develop strong STEM schools and archive proven STEM programs that instructors can implement themselves.
The event was a kick-off for UNLV’s efforts in researching, implementing, and innovating best practices in STEM education and the brainchild of Marta Meana, a longtime UNLV administrator and psychology professor, and of Hasan Deniz, science education professor and director of UNLV's Center for Mathematics, Science, and Engineering Education.
As the need for STEM talent grows exponentially, UNLV is in a unique position to educate a new and diverse generation of experts in STEM fields. President Keith E. Whitfield, in a demonstration of UNLV’s commitment to supporting state and national workforce needs, named Meana as a strategic STEAM advisor: a role that comes with the hefty responsibility of evaluating and advising on the current state of STEAM education at UNLV.
Presentations covered ongoing research by UNLV faculty in the STEM education fields and UNLV STEM education outreach programs, as well as work from UNLV’s Center for Academic Enrichment and Outreach (CAEO), office of undergraduate research (OUR), and Graduate College.
CAEO’s offerings in pre-college, college, and adult programs are highly effective at supporting students throughout their educational journey. Data from analytics reports have shown 68% of participants in CAEO’s pre-college programs enrolled in college, and 97% of their college participants persisted in college. These numbers are encouraging news when considering the national challenge being faced in retaining STEM students.
Levent Atici, executive director for undergraduate research, emphasized the importance of research engagement in attracting and retaining STEM students. With opportunities across the research spectrum available through OUR to both high school and UNLV students, it’s become easier for students to customize their research experience.
It’s about the process, not the product, Atici said. The process seems to be working, and OUR has grown from serving a few hundred students to 3,000 students per year.
Alyssa Crittenden, vice provost for graduate education and dean of the Graduate College, shared about complementary opportunities for students at the graduate level. The Grad Academy, a collection of workshops and professional development events, has served over 6,600 students since its inception in 2015. Crittenden emphasized that the university needs to support its STEM students at the graduate level equally, since graduate student researchers play a big role in helping support UNLV’s R1 status.
One way the Graduate College is doing this is through the creation and expansion of STEM pods, groupings of students of similar backgrounds/disciplines who can connect and support each other through personal, social, and academic challenges.
Another high point in a morning full of discovery arrived when Okhee Lee gave the keynote address. A renowned scholar and researcher in STEM education equity from New York University, Lee shared her insights about involving students in science and technology learning from a young age through the investigation of phenomena.
“Action comes first, and language follows second,” Lee said, describing how young students’ curiosity can be harnessed through hands-on learning. It’s about teaching them to investigate their world, a skill that will grow over time if it is supported early on.
Lee has worked widely with multilingual learners in elementary and middle school, but this theme is meaningful in higher education, as well. Investigation is the whole point at the UNLV Incubator, where students are encouraged to find solutions to problems they observe in their daily lives.
Robert Rippee, executive director of UNLV’s Black Fire Innovation Hub, spoke over lunch about the opportunities available to students through the Incubator.
Rippee explained how when students enter the program, he tells them, “I don’t want to hear about your idea. Tell me about the problem.” This focus on problem solving — something that is accessible to everyone — is one way that UNLV can attract students to STEM fields. Examples include the President’s Innovation Challenge, which returns for its second iteration this year. These types of programs provide crucial support and encouragement to STEM students and can help with retention.
So what was the overall takeaway?
Overwhelmingly, that UNLV is very active in the STEM education space and plans to do even more. Also, that students have great ideas and potential. And, while UNLV has some wonderful resources to support them, there’s so much more that can be done to reach out and encourage these students along the way. By leveraging connections with partners like CCSD and OSIT, UNLV can grow targeted programs that make students feel included and supported in STEM.
Judging by the enthusiastic support and collaboration seen at the first-ever STEM Education Meet at UNLV, the future of STEM education in the valley looks bright indeed.