Expectations exceeded in Scots Science Scholars summer program

Sept. 13, 2013
Contact: Karen B. Eldridge, Director of Communications
865.981.8207; karen.eldridge@maryvillecollege.edu

When classes at Maryville College started Aug. 28, 13 freshmen had already decided that the school – and specifically the Scots Science Scholars summer program – had exceeded their expectations.

“It just blows my mind how much I learned these last three weeks,” said Jamel Foster of Gatlinburg, Tenn. “[The summer program] was a great bridge from high school that helped me get adjusted to college life.”

The students were selected for the Scots Science Scholars program (dubbed S3) last spring. Funded with a four-year, $400,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, S3 aims to increase retention and graduation rates of students in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) majors, especially first generation students and students from underrepresented groups.

The curriculum for participants is designed to build community and provide academic support, including a specialized first-year sequence tailored to appeal to the interests and needs of S3 students. Over their four years at MC, participants also will participate in research and leadership experiences that are integrated with the Maryville College core curriculum.

But it all begins with a three-week summer bridge program.

The first S3 class moved to campus July 31 and immediately jumped into a schedule that involved orientation sessions, classroom presentations, laboratory exercises and field trips that showed STEM principles at work in the world.

“We wanted to give them a taste of what doing science was like, both in college and after college,” said Dr. Maria Siopsis, associate professor of mathematics and a co-principal investigator of the grant. “We have also observed that students who persist in the sciences are the ones that find a supportive group of students to work with, so we tried to facilitate that.”

Several Maryville College professors and staff members were involved in giving presentations and in leading field trips and related discussions. Four peer mentors – Maryville College juniors and seniors who are pursuing a STEM major – were selected to assist the new students in and out of the classrooms, laboratories and field trips.

“Doing STEM”

According to Siopsis, math preparation and proficiency – quantitative literacy – is the single best indicator for STEM persistence nationwide. With that in mind, she and Dr. Angelia Gibson, associate professor of chemistry and a co-principal investigator of the grant, built an itinerary that sharpened students’ skills in that area, introduced them to new concepts and built confidence.

They made sure the itinerary was fun, too.

Mountain Challenge set the stage for the summer by customizing outdoor adventure and recreation experiences for this STEM-focused group. Director Bruce Guillaume ’76 related the ropes course to challenges of lab classes or difficult exams, and he discussed physics and engineering as it pertains to load capacity as students prepared for their 60-foot Alpine Tower climb.

The students also formed tight bonds with each other as they worked to complete the challenges Guillaume put in front of them.

Meeting with the owners and operators of CLIMB Works in Gatlinburg, they “did STEM,” collecting data while they completed a zip line canopy tour. They used an accelerometer to determine velocities and distances traveled. The students also heard about the business’ commitment to sustainability and their efforts to recycle and preserve the natural area in which CLIMB Works operates. In addition to the physics, ecology and engineering lessons at CLIMB Works, the students learned lessons about facing challenges as they zipped across lines that stretched up to 1,200 feet between trees.

Physics was also the emphasis of a trip to Dollywood, where students discussed physics laws and mathematical models in relation to amusement park ride, and they collected data while riding rollercoasters and other rides. The students also learned ornithology and ecology as they prepped for their fieldtrip, later attending the Birds of Prey show and Eagle Sanctuary exhibit at Dollywood.

They talked statistics while enjoying a Tennessee Smokies baseball game and explored the connections between math and art in another presentation.

To prepare them for success in their biology and chemistry classes, the students completed several research projects in the lab and in the field. The students measured the fluorescence of extracts from opiliones (granddaddy longlegs), synthesized magnetic nanoparticles and prepared organic plant extracts that they tested for antibacterial activity.

At the Great Smokies Institute at Tremont and Camp Montvale, students conducted a survey of salamanders to determine the biological health of the area and, paddling the Ocoee River and touring TVA dams, they learned about the environmental impact of dams, as well as key engineering and physics concepts related to hydroelectric dams.

On the Maryville College campus, students learned how to use maps, global positioning systems and compasses for field biology research in an orienteering session.

“It was a completely different experience than what I thought it was going to be,” said Thomas Moore, a freshman from Richmond, Va. “It was great to go out and apply what we were learning from the professors.”

Gaining confidence

Prior to the summer bridge program, Moore was seriously considering a pre-med route with aspirations of becoming a pediatrician. But after exposure to field biology and related labs, he’s now considering an ecology focus.

Foster plans to pursue environmental engineering. It involves construction, with which he is familiar, and the outdoors, which he loves. The bridge program, he said, gave him skills not just for college studies but for his vocation.

“We learned problem-solving skills and dealt with open-ended questions,” he said. “In high school, teachers always want the answer. [With STEM problems], sometimes the answer isn’t known.”

Cheyenne Gies, a freshman from Maryville, intends to major in math with teacher licensure. Observing Siopsis, Gibson and many other MC professors during the bridge program confirmed her vocational choice.

“They helped me realize how much more I want to teach,” she said. “The professors really care about education and preparing us through this program.”

Admitting that she worried about being able to handle the assignments of college, she said the bridge program helped her realize that she can succeed. And if she struggles, she knows people are around to help.

“This program was a lot of fun, but it was also a great way to introduce students to Maryville College,” she said. “I got to know at least 10 professors; the peer mentors became like family.”

And they got to know each other very well.

“The group has bonded and we are still seeing them, after the summer experience is over, hanging out together on campus,” Gibson said. “We wanted to provide an opportunity where students could form a community that would be supportive of each other throughout the year, and I think we succeeded at that.”

Successful summer

Just as the program exceeded the students’ expectations, the students exceeded the professors’ expectations.

“They were adventurous, inclusive, enthusiastic and eager to learn,” Gibson said. “I was impressed with how closely they bonded to each other and how responsible they were. They did everything we asked them to do, and we asked a lot.”

Siopsis added “willing to take risks” to the class’ description and said all signs point to success at MC. In addition to students’ attitudes, the faculty saw marked improvement on pre- and post-program tests in math and chemistry.

With the fall 2013 semester underway, the students in the S3 program are together in two First-Year Seminar courses taught by Siopsis and Gibson. With the aid of field trips and guest speakers, students continue to sharpen their skills, broaden their knowledge and explore career paths.

“Current MC students will be coming in to talk about summer internships they have done, and we have several alumni who are going to talk about life after majoring in science, math, computer science or engineering at MC,” Siopsis said. “We’ll also be hearing from other scientists and entrepreneurs about their career paths after graduating college, so the students should have a broad understanding of the possibilities available to them if they continue in STEM fields.”

Students have already met four people who may be, eventually, among the most influential in their STEM pursuits.

“I think one of the most valuable experiences for the 13 first-year students was getting to see where they will be when they are juniors and seniors,” Siopsis said. “Our peer mentors were assets in the lab and the classroom and assets as models of professional behavior. They were able to coach our first-year students through choosing their courses for fall semester, any issue related to student life, and the final presentations, which were impressive.”

And as Siopsis and Gibson have designed the S3 peer mentor program, Foster, Moore and Gies may have the opportunity to be that influence for other students in just a few years.

Applications taken now

The Maryville College Admissions Office is recruiting now for the next S3 class. To apply, contact the Admissions Office at 865.981.8092 or fill out the online form.