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Waubonsee STEM Program Recognized

With its wide variety of course offerings, dedicated faculty and state-of-the-art facilities, Waubonsee Community College has long been a destination for students studying in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. The introduction of the STEM scholarship program, funded by a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, has further strengthened the college’s offerings in this area, and for that, the college is proud to recognize the program as part of its “Placing Learning First” initiative.

In July 2010, the college received notification of the five-year $598,397 NSF grant, awarded to fund scholarships for academically talented students with financial need who are looking to earn a degree in a STEM discipline. Costs not covered by other forms of financial aid, including tuition, fees, books and living expenses, are paid for by the scholarships. This fall, 18 students are participating as Waubonsee STEM scholars; 12 of these had demonstrated financial need and are receiving scholarship assistance.

But the STEM program isn’t just meeting the needs of individual students; it’s also meeting the needs of society as a whole. “Clearly, most of us in the United States enjoy our technologically advanced society, but few of us are willing or able to undertake the training necessary to develop this craved technology,” said Associate Professor of Earth Science/Geology David Voorhees, who also serves as the principal investigator for the STEM scholarship program. “The NSF S-STEM grant … is one step in the identification and training of the skilled scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians necessary to satisfy our technological cravings.”

Information systems, computer sciences and computer technologies are all eligible disciplines in the STEM program, along with biological sciences (excluding medicine and clinical fields), mathematics, materials science, engineering, physics, chemistry and earth sciences.

The diversity of disciplines is matched by the diversity of the STEM scholars themselves. Fourteen of the 18 scholars are male, and eight scholars are over 23 years old. Four students are first-generation college students while two scholars are single parents. All are high-achievers; the average grade point average for freshmen scholars is 3.6, and returning Waubonsee students average a 3.7.

Because of their impressive intellect, these students will be challenged by STEM faculty in a variety of areas, including critical thinking.

“As a teaching assistant in graduate school, my eyes were opened to my lack of understanding of the mathematics I was ‘good at,’” said Assistant Professor of Mathematics Amy Del Medico, who serves as the co-principal investigator of the STEM program. “It turns out I was ‘good at’ the mechanics but didn’t have much of a clue when it came to why I was doing the mechanics. Once I started to focus on the why, mathematics became a new and exciting challenge; it became beautiful, cool and powerful. My goals as an educator … is to bring that beauty, power and cool factor to my students, so they’re asking the questions I never asked when I sat where they are — ‘why?’ and ‘what if?’.”

STEM scholars are also being pushed to learn outside of the classroom through work with a faculty mentor. Voorhees, Del Medico and Assistant Professor of Biology Danielle DuCharme, who is the other co-principal investigator for the grant program, head up a team of 10 other faculty members committed to nurturing and supporting STEM scholars.

Of course, the scholars can also look to one another for help and support. There are group study sessions in a designated classroom, and each month a chosen scholar presents a paper to his or her peers for discussion and review. The student with the highest peer review score earns a trip to a professional conference.

Professional conferences and networks are important educational resources not only for the STEM scholars but for the program’s principal investigators as well.

Del Medico, who became a full-time instructor at Waubonsee in 2001, has been involved on the steering committee and as a co-chair for the International Conference on Technology in Collegiate Mathematics. Her interest in technology also served her well in her roles as the faculty liaison and mywcc liaison for Waubonsee’s Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT).

Since becoming a full-time faculty member at Waubonsee in 2007, DuCharme has served as the vice president for the Illinois Association of Community College Biologists and been an active member of Illinois Community College Faculty Association. On campus, she serves as an advisor for Waubonsee’s Phi Theta Kappa chapter and the Students Organizing Sustainability (S.O.S.) group.

Also advising S.O.S. is Voorhees, who is marking his 10th year as a full-time faculty member at Waubonsee. In 2004 he helped lead the search for mastodon bones in Aurora’s Phillips Park and continues to organize a series of on-campus science lectures called “Asset Earth.” He currently serves as president of the Geo2YC division of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, an executive board member for the Illinois Association of Geoscience Instructors, and an educational affiliate representative for the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS).

More information on the NSF STEM scholarship program, including applications for the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 years, can be found at www.waubonsee.edu/stem.