Exploring STEM opportunities
Exploring STEM opportunities at EOU
News contact: Laura Hancock, University Advancement, 541-962-3585
Story by Kelly Ducote for EOU
LA GRANDE, Ore. April 6, 2017 – Undergraduate students across the United States often wait years for their turn in the research lab or in the field.
That’s not the case at Eastern Oregon University where professors say a variety of hands-on opportunities await students, particularly for those in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.
Antell views education in its best form as an active experience, versus sitting passive in the classroom. This is one reason why rather than just devoting one day of the week to lab work, lab activities are incorporated into classes throughout the week.
“It’s more fun for me, and I think it’s more fun for the students,” she said. “It keeps them excited.”
Field trips are another way to keep students engaged. Each year, Antell’s freshman biology students make two trips out to the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area about five miles southeast of La Grande. Chemistry students are also introduced to research possibilities at the 6,020-acre wetlands area.
Students later have an opportunity to get more involved in Antell’s Ladd Marsh research projects, which are done in conjunction with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Friends of Ladd Marsh.
Antell tries to develop research projects with community components. As of late, she’s been studying water quality, invertebrates and mosquitoes, and how those interact to impact human health.
Most students enjoy the fieldwork, and especially those looking to enter careers in ecology or resource management.
“At this level (freshman year), we want to give them a broad experience,” she said.
Antell also works with Wallowology in Joseph, helping develop exhibits. Wallowa Lake receives up to 700,000 visitors a year, yet there was nothing available for natural history interpretation. Wallowology provides natural history and science-based information about the region. It’s non-profit, and all exhibits and most activities are free to the public.
The area’s variety of habitat, including canyonlands and forest, offer plenty to study, often in the form of “Discovery Walk” field trips. Antell said they are now trying to equip the center for doing science and to develop kids programming.
“I’m hoping EOU students will become engaged with that, like they have with Ladd Marsh,” said Antell, noting that some students from Whitman College have already interned at Wallowology.
Back at Eastern, though, she said campus facilities bolster the hands-on science experience. All biology and chemistry students have use of sophisticated laboratory facilities and equipment. For example, the genetics lab has a DNA sequencer and all of the instrumentation necessary for doing DNA bar coding. Undergraduate students have many opportunities to become engaged in research projects with science faculty, who mentor students through the process of doing original research, writing papers, and presenting their results at scientific conferences. These experiences help students learn how to be scientists – not just students of science.
Antell also encourages students to get involved in clubs. EOU offers pre-professional clubs (vet and health) in addition to chemistry and math clubs. Antell also highlighted activities like Girls in Science and LEGO Robotics.
During those activities, she said, “We get this generational learning experience” as college students teach younger kids, explaining the science behind a given activity.
Amy Yielding, professor of mathematics at EOU, noted that club involvement is especially good for many of her students who are nervous about public speaking, which she said can be fairly common among math students.
The Math Club makes an annual trip to the Regional Northwest Undergraduate Math Symposium and where students “get to practice presenting their research,” Yielding said. The symposium also offers a networking opportunity and the chance to meet professionals and other professors.
The Math Club also hosts guest speakers. Last year, students heard from professionals at the National Security Agency and the U.S. Naval Air Systems Command.
Like Antell, Yielding offers undergraduates a chance to get involved in research early, and each summer she launches a group project that is open-ended and free for the students to participate in.
“They don’t have to be math majors, but they are usually science majors,” Yielding said. “They don’t have to worry about paying for it.”
After the summer term of the project is over, students can opt to continue with their research for credit, publish in the student-run Eastern Oregon Science Journal and present at a regional conference.
Last year’s research, Yielding said, was the “most successful in terms of a product.”
A pair of students – her smallest research group yet – worked with the Department of Environmental Quality, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the City of Burns to devise a model for predicting air quality. One model existed but needed work.
“We made a better model for predicting, and they’re using it in Burns,” Yielding said.
Students later presented their work in Boise to multi-state NOAA and Environmental Protection Agency Officials.
Most students who participate in Yielding’s research, she said, appreciate it even if they are only involved for the summer.
Yielding said her students also love the challenge of Kyrptos, a code-breaking event held at Central Washington University, and the annual international Consortium for Mathematics and Its Applications (COMAP) competition. With COMAP, participants must choose from one of three scenarios to solve.
For example, Yielding said one scenario was “Curing Ebola.” Another may instruct participants to solve for the rate of adding hot water to a bath.
“They get three days to write the paper, and we’ve had several contest winners,” Yielding said.
Other students had a front row seat to a breakthrough last summer with the discovery of a molecule that may interact differently with heme proteins. The interns working on the project with Colin Andrew, professor of chemistry, were funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
EOU’s chemistry-biochemistry program also regularly hosts high school interns through Project SEED. Anna Cavinato, professor of chemistry, is the chair of the program. She has involved students extensively over the past several years on a long-term research project to create a biosensor to detect bacteria in water.
Organizations like the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife would ultimately benefit from such a tool, and it could have a major impact on salmon preservation efforts.
Regardless of how students decide to get involved in their studies outside the classroom or where they are headed after graduation, both Yielding and Antell agree the active students are doing themselves a favor.
“The career opportunity is really the final line,” Antell said. “Giving them the experience to help them get to the next level, whether that’s a job or (graduate) school, is important.”
Yielding noted the lack of graduate students in STEM subjects at EOU means undergrads are presented with opportunities, such as grading and tutoring, which she said is beneficial for them whether they want to go on to teach or not.
In her experience, developing skills like public speaking, writing and working on a team are vital to students’ success, even if they don’t go straight into research at the graduate school level.
“Dissemination of knowledge is really important,” Yielding said. “Some students go into industry, but the public speaking really prepares them.”