Engaging STEM Students

ENGAGING STEM STUDENTS


How can we meaningfully engage students in STEM courses? How can we make Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields (STEM) more inclusive and accessible?

Claudia De Grandi

The retention rate in STEM fields is low—many students who initially plan to pursue a degree in STEM drop out because they don’t identify with the environment they’re exposed to and they don’t enjoy their STEM courses. How can we keep students excited and interested in staying in STEM?

Claudia De Grandi, assistant professor (lecturer) of educational practice in the Physics and Astronomy Department, spends most of her time thinking about how to make her courses more inclusive and how to encourage every student, independently of their background, abilities and identities, to participate and engage in STEM fields successfully.

“I love teaching because of its challenges,” said De Grandi. “Something that worked well in one place may not work in another setting. It’s the role of the teacher to listen to the students and adapt to be in tune with them. My goals are to be equitable and inclusive, although I don’t always achieve it.

Unfortunately, we’re all biased, and it’s our responsibility to keep trying to understand how it feels to be someone else.” De Grandi tries her best to consider the hurdles and inequities each student has to overcome to succeed in school. She has taught at Yale University, Housatonic Community College (Bridgeport, Conn.), and now at the U.

Her teaching style relies on the adoption of evidence-based teaching practices and is informed by the latest results from Physics Education Research (PER). PER is the field of physics that aims to understand and assess how students learn and make sense of physics concepts and identify successful teaching practices and instructional approaches.

In support of previous PER research, De Grandi has found that using active learning techniques and providing opportunities to promote group work are key to student success. “I started implementing group quizzes a few years ago—now I also do group exams. I prompt student reflections (on exam mistakes, performance, and preparation) and on their mindset (growth or fixed),” said De Grandi. “I do like to surprise my students by asking them to talk about something not related to physics. Learning is not just about content—I work to make sure my students are comfortable sitting in class so they can focus on learning.”

Here is what one student said about De Grandi’s teaching: “Claudia is amazing, and she’s one of the main reasons I enjoy coming to class. Her drawings are cute, and her examples are always fun and silly. She includes everyone and really knows how to make a class fun. I was worried I’d hate physics but she definitely made me love it. “

De Grandi grew up in Milan, Italy, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics from the University of Milan. In 2011, she obtained a Ph.D. in theoretical condensed matter physics from Boston University.

She was at Yale University first as a research postdoc and continued as a teaching postdoc through the Yale Center for Teaching and Learning. She joined the U in July 2018 as an assistant professor (lecturer) in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. De Grandi has been actively involved in faculty training on teaching for the past five years and has served as a facilitator and leader for the Summer Institutes on Scientific Teaching (https://www.summerinstitutes.org/) at several U.S. campuses as well as at University College London. She is currently collaborating with the U’s Center for Science and Mathematics Education to bring a Summer Institute to the U next spring. Interested faculty from the College of Science will be invited to participate.

At the U, De Grandi has redesigned and led the Teaching Assistant (TA) Orientation for Physics and Astronomy graduate students. The training focuses on preparing incoming graduate students to teach by promoting group work, being aware of student diversity, and fostering a welcoming environment.

“This spring I’ll be teaching a new course called “Being Human in STEM,” said De Grandi. “Although I’ve taught this course before at Yale, this will be my first time teaching it here, along with a team of colleagues in math, chemistry, and astronomy.”

The course combines academic inquiry and community engagement to investigate diversity and climate within STEM. Students will examine how diverse personal backgrounds shape the STEM experience both at the U and nationally. “The goal is to start a dialogue among STEM faculty and students to identify issues with the STEM environment and develop interventions to help ameliorate these problems,” said De Grandi. “I look forward to teaching the course, and learning, from and with the students.”

 - by Michele Swaner
  First Published in Discover Magazine, Fall 2019

TreeTop Barbie

When Nalini Nadkarni was a young scientist in the 1980s, she wanted to study the canopy – the part of the trees just above the forest floor to the very top branches.

But back then, people hadn't figured out a good way to easily reach the canopy so it was difficult to conduct research in the tree tops. And Nadkarni's graduate school advisors didn't really think studying the canopy was worthwhile. "That's just Tarzan and Jane stuff. You know that's just glamour stuff," Nadkarni remembers advisors telling her. "There's no science up there that you need to do."

They couldn't have been more wrong. Over the course of her career, Nadkarni's work has illuminated the unique and complex world of the forest canopy.

She helped shape our understanding of canopy soils — a type of soil that forms on the tree trunks and branches. The soil is made up of dead canopy plants and animals that decompose in place. The rich soil supports canopy-dwelling plants, insects and microorganisms that live their entire life cycles in the treetops. If the canopy soil falls to the forest floor, the soil joins the nutrient cycles of the whole forest.

She also discovered that some trees are able to grow above-ground roots from their branches and trunks. Much like below ground roots, the aerial roots can transport water and nutrients into the tree.

During Nadkarni's early work as an ecologist she began to realize something else: There weren't many women conducting canopy research.

Nadkarni was determined to change this. In the early 2000s, she and her lab colleagues came up with the idea of TreeTop Barbie, a canopy researcher version of the popular Barbie doll that could be marketed to young girls.

She pitched the idea to Mattel, the company that makes Barbie. "When I proposed this idea they said, 'We're not interested. That has no meaning to us," says Nadkarni. "We make our own Barbies."

Nadkarni decided to make them herself anyway. She thrifted old Barbies; commissioned a tailor to make the clothes for TreeTop Barbie; and she created a TreeTop Barbie field guide to canopy plants. Nadkarni sold the dolls at cost and brought TreeTop Barbie to conferences and lectures.

Her efforts landed her in the pages of The New York Times, and word eventually got back to Mattel. The owners of Barbie wanted her to shut down TreeTop Barbie due to brand infringement.

Nadkarni pushed back.

"Well you know, I know a number of journalists who would be really interested in knowing that Mattel is trying to shut down a small, brown woman who's trying to inspire young girls to go into science," she recalls telling Mattel.

Mattel relented. The company allowed her to continue her small-scale operation. By Nadkarni's count, she sold about 400 dolls over the years.

Then in 2018, more than a decade after Nadkarni started TreeTop Barbie, she got an unbelievable phone call. National Geographic had partnered with Mattel to make a series of Barbies focused on exploration and science. And they wanted Nadkarni to be an advisor.

"I thought, this is incredible. This is like full circle coming around. This is a dream come true," says Nadkarni.

For its part, Mattel is "thrilled to partner with National Geographic and Nalini," a spokesperson told NPR.

Nadkarni knows that everyone might not approve of her working with Barbie. Barbie's role in creating an unrealistic standard of beauty for young women has been debated. Nadkarni has also wrestled with how she feels about it.

"My sense is yes she's a plastic doll. Yes she's configured in all the ways that we should not be thinking of how women should be shaped," says Nadkarni. "But the fact that now there are these explorer Barbies that are being role models for little girls so that they can literally see themselves as a nature photographer, or an astrophysicist, or an entomologist or you know a tree climber... It's never perfect. But I think it's a step forward."

Nadkarni is an Emeritus Professor at The Evergreen State College, and currently is a professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah.

 

Nalini Nadkarni's story has appeared in The Washington Post, Time Magazine, Taiwan News, News India Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, National Geographic, The Guardian, Science Friday, San Francisco Chronicle, India Today, India Times, KSL News, Salt Lake Tribune, USA Today, BBC, The Morning Journal, CNN, UNEWS, Star Tribune, National Science Foundation, Continuum, TreeHugger, and many others.

 

 

- First Published by NPR News, Fall 2019