Rising concern about America's ability to maintain its competitive position in the global economy has renewed interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. The challenge, according to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Science and Technology Studies Professor Ron Eglash, is that minority students are often disinterested in STEM academics because they do not see its relevance to their own lives and communities.
To provide a solution, Eglash has received a five-year, $2.9 million National Science Foundation (NSF) research grant to support the development of "The Triple Helix" project that is dedicated to producing "civic scientists." The grant will fund up to eight graduate fellows from Rensselaer. They will focus on STEM research projects related to community-based issues. These issues including health, the environment, poverty, crime, and information access within New York's Capital Region.
"The broader impacts of our project lie in the creation of a new pedagogy for producing socially responsible STEM, new avenues for delivering the benefits of STEM to under-served communities, and new methods of improving the teaching and learning of STEM topics by underrepresented students," Eglash says. "Rather than a one-way 'trickle-down' of knowledge, we will explore the possibilities for a 'triple helix' collaboration between universities, K-12, and community knowledge production as a way to engage disenfranchised students.
"We call it a 'triple helix' to show that these three domains need to be intertwined and mutually supporting one another. And just as real DNA is self-replicating, we like to think that this approach could be replicated in elsewhere."
In developing the proposal, Eglash notes many questions that still needed to be addressed. For example, how can Rensselaer graduate students apply their science and engineering research to help solve problems facing local communities—problems including health, poverty, pollution, and crime? How could students help the communities take better advantage of their local resources in culture or social capital?
"Fortunately I'm in the Department of Science and Technology Studies [STS], which trains social science grads to research the relations between society and science/technology. By bringing STS fellows together with the science and engineering graduate fellows, my hope is that we can influence research in directions that are beneficial to low-income community problems," Eglash says.
"It seemed to me that we needed some help in translating those issues into a research agenda. To address this issue, the grant also includes some funding for community activists who work in the areas of AIDS/HIV awareness, environmentalism, health, poverty, housing, and others, to serve as advisers to the fellows," he adds. "Making real-world connections—especially connections that tie in students' experiences in their lives and within their community—has the possibility of improving the students' mindset toward STEM academics."
This fall, the fellows—six from the School of Science and School of Engineering at Rensselaer, and two from STS in the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences—will be placed in a collaborative teaching program with local middle schools serving low-income and minority communities in the Capital Region. The schools are Myers Middle School, Hackett Middle School, and North Albany Academy in the City School District of Albany; and Doyle Middle School in the Enlarged City School District of Troy.
Eglash notes that the preliminary idea for the NSF grant stems from an article that he wrote more than eight years ago: "A Two-Way Bridge Across the Digital Divide," published in the June 2002 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.
"At the time there was a lot of discussion about how to 'bridge the digital divide' for under-served communities. But it was always framing the problem as a one-way bridge: 'we have the stuff and they have nothing.' It seemed to me that assumption, 'they have nothing,' was part of the problem. So how do we come up with a better recognition of both local problems and local resources? The metaphor I was using at the time was a 'two-way bridge' that allows things to travel in both directions," he says.
"As we move forward with this project, our activities will instill graduate STEM fellows with a greater awareness of the connections between their research disciplines and pressing social issues, and provide them with the training to communicate these connections to the public," he says. "The fellows' top priority is to collaborate with the middle school teachers in developing STEM lessons, and to actively participate in the teaching. The second priority is to provide the teachers with some experiences at Rensselaer that will include working in a lab for a few days over the summer. The third priority is to meet with the community activists and STS grads to think about how the STEM research might be applied to some of the community problems or resources."
The grant also includes an international component, as Eglash, along with several of the fellows and Rensselaer faculty involved in the project, will travel to the field research site in Kumasi, Ghana, to see how their approach might be used in a Third World context.
Rensselaer co-principal investigators of the project are: Jonathan Dordick, the Howard P. Isermann Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering; Audrey Bennett , associate professor in the Department of Language, Literature, and Communication, who will provide training for the graduate fellows in the use of graphic design for science education, and work at the field research site in Kumasi, Ghana.; and Daniel Stilson, instructional supervisor for K-12 science in the City School District of Albany.
Other participating Rensselaer faculty advisers and departments include: David Hess, professor in STS and program director for Ecological Economics, Values, and Policy; Mukkai Krishnamoorthy, associate professor in the Department of Computer Science; Kim Lewis, assistant professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Applied Physics & Astronomy; and several faculty from the Department of Electrical, Computer, and Systems Engineering including Professor Qiang Ji, Assistant Professor Shayla Sawyer, and Associate Professor Paul Schoch.
Eglash's research examines the ways in which information technology, mathematical modeling, and other science and technology practices are intertwined with cultural categories such as race, gender, and class, and explores interventions in these relationships.
Past projects have also been funded by the NSF, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Education. Some of the projects involved translating the mathematical concepts embedded in cultural designs of African, Native American, Latino, and heterogeneous urban youth communities into software design tools for secondary school education.
Called "culturally situated design tools," the programs educate students about the math and computing principles used to design cornrow hairstyles, Mangbetu art, Navajo rugs, Yupik parka patterns, pre-Columbian pyramids, and Latin music, among others. The software is available for free at www.csdt.rpi.edu.