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Brookhaven College employee newsletter: Monday, Aug. 20, 2012

Scientists Solving Problems

Scientists Solving Problems

Scientists are always looking for ways to improve the status-quo.

When faced with a lack of student interest in the fields of chemistry, physics and geology, the American Geophysical Union did what it does best: research. However, AGU discovered that research – or the lack-thereof in early college science courses – may be the problem, according to Jerry Bartz, Geospatial Technology Lab coordinator.

Jerry and Scott Sires, GIS/GPS technologies professor, were two of approximately 40 educators in the nation chosen to attend an American Geophysical Union seminar at AGU headquarters in Washington, D.C., last month. Discussions focused on research activities and the impact they may have on attracting students to careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

AGU proposed replacing “cookbook” science labs -- a paint-by-number process with a predictable outcome (think of the beaker, safety goggles and a concoction of chemicals) -- with scientific research, an unpredictable method of exploration. The organization stressed the importance of using the fun learning technique in freshman- and sophomore-level courses, where most students encounter college-level science for the first time.

From a scientific perspective, research isn’t prep work for a 12-page paper, but a process of discovery whereby students pose a real-world question, conduct experiments and interpret the outcome, Jerry said. Activities can include anything from measuring the health of vegetation in drought conditions to the Geospatial Technology Program’s research trips to Belize.

AGU hopes that through research, up-and-coming scientists will find their fun, and STEM employers may find their key to recruitment.

Here are the stats. In the fields of waste management and ecosystems alone, more than 150,000 geoscientists are expected to retire by 2021, leaving positions that will need to be filled by qualified professionals.

AGU and the National Science Foundation agree that to accomplish their goals, community colleges are their greatest ally. An estimated 50 percent of STEM graduates begin their education at two-year colleges. However, early college courses need to not only spike student interest, but also hold it, as only 40 percent of students who declared a STEM major when they began college graduated in the field.

“If we can get students interested in STEM while they’re here – many are starting at two-year colleges now – they’ll already know what they like when they begin the more advanced courses at {four-year colleges},” Jerry said.

Boosting the number of STEM graduates is important, though the workshop and its topic are only half the story.

At the conference, Brookhaven College was one of 23 two-year colleges represented, which recruited bright minds from Alaska to Florida, and from California to New York. Each college demonstrated their current programs and research initiatives.

Scott and Jerry, representing GIS, the only non-earth-science program at the conference, had an opportunity to not only share their research, but also demonstrate the data-interpreting capabilities of the Geospatial Technology Department.

In other words, they had a chance to show off.

Heavily based in GIS technology, the Brookhaven College research program was the most advanced in interpreting data, though it was the only program not funded through a major university collaborator or the NSA.

“We were able to pull off a program without a collaborator,” Jerry said. “It shows a lot about the administrators who support us. We couldn’t have done it without them.”

With a demonstration so innovative it dropped jaws, the two GIS professors exhibited data from their recent research trip to Belize. Their presentation incorporated rich detail, three-dimensional displays and statistical data pop-ups.

However, they weren’t the only program to use GIS technology to interpret data. One earth-science program demonstrated its successful use of the technology through informative, if not jaw-dropping, two-dimensional displays.

Scott and Jerry’s presentation was a show-stopper and prompted inquiries from three other colleges about a possible collaboration. With GIS emerging as a strong component of earth science studies, the colleges see value in either beginning or improving their use of GIS technology.