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New UGA study aims to better prepare college students for STEM careers

Athens, Ga. – A University of Georgia education researcher is directing a new study he hopes will lead to better methods of preparing college students for careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics by training them to think across disciplines rather than focusing on specific disciplinary topics.
College graduates seeking STEM careers today are expected to have interdisciplinary knowledge, but the science education they receive is often incompatible with the emerging needs in STEM-related research and industry, said Ji Shen, an assistant professor in the College of Education’s department of mathematics and science education, who is directing the study.Most students develop only a fragmented understanding of science.

Shen is leading a diverse research team which includes members from five departments across three UGA colleges: Steve Oliver, Shawn Glynn and Shannon Huang from the College of Education; Tom Robertson, co-principal investigator, James Moore and Wan-I Oliver Li from the College of Veterinary Medicine; and Craig Wiegert and Kathrin Stanger-Hall from the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

The research team will create an assessment system that helps college students develop interdisciplinary learning skills. They will work with UGA students taking introductory physics, biology, physiology and science education courses.

“The project will help UGA students develop interdisciplinary understanding in science and better prepare them to pursue interdisciplinary STEM careers,” said Shen. “For example, the field of neuroscience is interdisciplinary in nature. It is the scientific study of the nervous system in terms of the molecular, cellular, developmental, structural, functional, evolutionary, computational and medical aspects. It involves multiple traditional disciplines, including mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, computer science and medicine.”

The study is funded by a two-year, $397,425 grant from the National Science Foundation.

The team will design and implement assessments to help college students integrate scientific knowledge and solve complex problems across disciplines, targeting fundamental biological processes, such as diffusion, filtration and osmosis in the context of physiology.

The assessment items will be developed using state-of-the-art computerized modeling environments and web-based tools. Complex biological processes will be modeled through dynamic computer visualizations.

Project activities will provide integrative learning opportunities for students rarely offered in college-learning contexts.The project also will foster partnerships among researchers in the scientific disciplines and education fields to improve college teaching. Shen will conduct an independent study with Robertson, an assistant professor in the department of physiology and pharmacology, to expand his knowledge in physiology.

Shen has a second NSF grant testing the effectiveness of Modeling-Based Instruction, an innovative approach to K-12 teaching. He believes the teaching method can improve student learning in science education, and his two-year study will determine how it can be implemented in classrooms across the nation.

Before joining the UGA faculty in 2008, Shen was a post-doctoral researcher at the Technology Enhanced Learning Science Community at the University of California, Berkeley. He earned a Ph.D. in physics education in 2006 and an A.M. in physics in 2003 from Washington University in St. Louis. He earned a B.S. in geophysics from Beijing University in 2001.

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