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Charles Whelan ’25 (pictured) partnered with James McKnight ’23 to present the research duo's findings after a summer spent on a thoroughgoing review of the academic literature on their topic.

Paging Next-Gen Scientists

James McKnight ’23 and Charles Whelan ’25 read their own weight in science journals over the summer while doing some heavy lifting on a major research project to create and motivate access to STEM careers in previously under-served communities.

Through the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellows (SURF) program, McKnight and Whelan worked with their advisors, assistant professors Nicholas Mauro (Physics) and Ananya Matewos (Teacher Education) in a cross-curricular partnership to power through the first of three phases in the community STEM (science, technology engineering and mathematics) engagement project.

Thanks to McKnight and Whelan’s eight weeks of work assessing existing research applicable to STEM education in community settings, Phase 1 is now well under way and under Matewos’s guidance the pair have nailed a system for an effective literature review which they shared in an end-of-SURF-season presentation.

Furthering a research future
SURF is intended as an introduction to the rigors of the research life, Mauro explains, including professional development opportunities.

“The participants learn about professionalism and ethics, they practice their presentation skills and get comfortable speaking about their work, they develop elevator talks, they learn what the expectations will be later in their career. We have a lot of first-generation students who don't have a lot of experience in these matters. Plus the participants practice talking to a non-technical audience before they give their presentation, which is supposed to be digested by a broad community, not just experts in their field.”

As Matewos says: “This is students’ first serious opportunity to engage in research and get compensated for it. So it shows the student, the campus and the community how research is valued, and it’s an important investment in the research partnership practice between faculty and students.”

The eight weeks’ SURF program can lead to further opportunities to participate in directed research, possibly unpaid but often attracting academic credits or independent study projects for academic research. Some projects will last far beyond the SURFers’ SNC careers.

“Ours is going to be a long-term study with hopefully relatively contained phases, but some projects involve students going out in the field for five or 10 years. There’s a huge variety in the work you might do,” Mauro says.

Whelan (above) and McKnight are assisting with the first phase of a three-phase STEM education project which has grown from a collaboration with Washington University.

Mauro says: “Our initial goal was to bring the science resources developed by U-Wash for K-12 classrooms to traditionally under-served communities. The pandemic provided an opportunity to reconceive what our challenges are. Our approach will now involve things we've learned about multimodal engagement and developing effective online communities. What are the types of engagement beyond the classroom that helped to complement and supplement these programs that do exist?

“In Phase 1, we're trying to identify and lower barriers to engagement in STEM in youth. There's a body of literature that suggests that if students don't get exposure to STEM ideas by the time they reach high school, they're very unlikely to engage in STEM or pursue STEM careers. Maybe they're not aware of the types of professional opportunities that there are, or of the routes through university and getting an advanced degree. Phase 2 is where we start to think about modules that we might implement to inspire students’ interest in STEM careers, and Phase 3 is disseminating the modules.”

Reading with a healthy skepticism
The literature review was a crucial first step, as Matewos explains. “We don't want to do things we know have not worked in the past, we don’t want to do things that people have already done without giving them credit for it.”

McKnight and Whelan’s work in documenting each paper on a framework analysis sheet is, she says, “a very detailed, painstaking and rigorous process. But whatever challenge we set, they would meet it.”

To support the new fellows through the eight-week immersion in Planet Research, the SURF participants live together in Burke Hall, bond over lunch in the Campus Center and share social events such as trips to amusement parks and farmers’ markets.

“We are trying to solve big questions and expecting a high quality of work from the students,” says Mauro, “Effective research is very challenging, so we ensure that they have a supportive community which eases them into the research world.”

The skills learned in the eight weeks are invaluable in any discipline or future career, says McKnight. “You learn how to read efficiently and, more importantly, how to skim efficiently. When you’re going through hundreds and hundreds of papers, scanning the abstracts, you come up with your own ways to find what you think will be relevant.

“Our big question was, how do we determine what is relevant to our inquiry, because you can make almost anything relevant if you look hard enough but we wanted to know what was really important. That’s why we said in our presentation that you need to read with healthy skepticism.”

Whelan adds: “We were looking at what we could pull from the studies that specifically applies to us, for a through line that related to our keywords.” Psychology and English major Whelan has graduate school in his sights and says: “Learning how to sit down and read dense academic texts is a skill you will always need.”

After a first reading the abstracts would move into an “Okay, let’s read the whole paper” pile, then a “maybe” pile and beyond. McKnight describes it as “a ladder approach: You start at the bottom and work your way up until you finally decide to keep a paper. A lot of the papers talked about just how to teach in general in formal settings, and how to teach science in general. Ideally, we wanted papers about how to motivate and teach people outside of the classroom.”

A chemistry major, McKnight intends to teach high-school chemistry and completed his sophomore block of teaching practice last semester. “If I can learn how to do it outside of the classroom, I feel like that will make doing it in the classroom so much easier,” he said. When he applied for SURF, he was recruited enthusiastically by Mauro, whose physics class he had taken. “He stood out in the classroom as a very engaging student whose attitude and work ethic were well suited to the project.” Then, when Whelan approached Matewos after a psychology class, the seeds of this new research partnership were sown: Although Whelan was too late for the SURF callout, his enthusiasm for the research experience opened the door. He connected with McKnight and was recruited to the program as a “SURF ally”. “He’s a dedicated young scholar and was clearly serious about the work,” says Matewos.

The fall semester is likely to see them reading away, healthy skepticism at the ready, if not for this project then for their next assignment.

SURF is one of the opportunities for students to partner in research with their professors offered by the SNC Collaborative.

Sept. 15, 2022