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STEM: The Future of Cal State University

STEM: The Future of Cal State University
A Cal State Chico student installs monitoring equipment at Poas Volcano, Costa Rica.

Amid growing concerns about the U.S. labor force falling behind well-educated (yet lower-paid) workers in countries like Russia, India and China, politicians, business leaders and others nationwide have become increasingly vocal about the need to strengthen American education in science and technology. As the largest producer of college graduates in the state, the California State University system has its role to play.

"The California State University system is interested in increasing the number of students graduating in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to meet future workforce demands," said Judy Botelho, CSU's director of the Center for Community Engagement.

CSU administrators feel these subjects should have practical applications that benefit the community directly. The Corporation for National & Community Service agrees, and provided the CSU system with a Learn and Serve America- funded grant to accomplish those goals. This grant program is called STEM² (Service learning Transforming Educational Models in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). The landmark program aims to produce graduates who can apply their STEM knowledge to serve and strengthen local California businesses and communities.

Botelho said that the key aspect of this initiative is a focus on service learning, a way of teaching that connects meaningful community service with academic instruction.

"Students can experience, first-hand, how their knowledge in STEM can impact communities, how it can make a difference, how they can contribute to the common good. It brings STEM to life in a meaningful way," she explained.

One example of the program in action is an electrical engineering class at Cal State, Northridge (CSUN) in which students tested lighting levels in a low-income, high-crime community in Pacoima and developed a plan to increase that lighting with the intended outcome of decreasing crime levels. They presented the plan to the city council and it was approved.

In a robotics class at Cal Poly Pomona, engineering students and faculty visited local K-12 schools on a weekly basis to teach students about robotics. And while studying renewable energy, students at San Jose State University designed a series of interactive projects to explain renewable energy technology to school children.

"Through STEM², we are creating more hands-on opportunities for students to experience the practical application and impact of science, technology, engineering and math through the development of service-learning courses," Botelho commented.

Beyond STEM², there are a number of other initiatives that promote the sciences within the state university system.

The National Science Foundation Teaching Fellowship Program at CSUN provides funding and training for college graduates with degrees in STEM subjects and is currently recruiting post-baccalaureate and STEM professionals with strong math backgrounds to become teaching fellows.

The fellows go on to earn single-subject mathematics teaching credentials and master's degrees in mathematics education or mathematics and participate in professional development activities while teaching in high-need school districts. Candidates are asked to commit to five-year stints during which they will earn an additional $65,000 in stipends and/or salary supplements over the five-year period and work closely with CSUN faculty, local leaders and others enrolled in teaching programs.

Seven California State University campuses are among 90 nationwide recognized as Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) and will receive more than $35 million from the U.S. Department of Education over the next five years to expand and enhance their STEM programs.

The campuses — Bakersfield, Channel Islands, Fullerton, Long Beach, Monterey Bay, Northridge and Stanislaus — are among the CSU's 14 HSIs, campuses where at least a quarter of the enrollment is Hispanic. Similar funding will also be awarded to 34 California community colleges in an effort to better prepare Hispanic and low-income students transferring into CSU STEM programs.

In 2009, President Obama launched the "Educate to Innovate" campaign for excellence in STEM Education, a $260-million nationwide effort to move American students from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math achievement over the next 10 years.

—Julia Clerk
Custom Publishing Writer