The STE(A)M is Rising

by Joely Johnson Mork, SGS ’08

“[Science] is more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves. It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world…” -President Barack Obama, March 23, 2015 (www.ed.gov/stem)

A Biology class at Sage College of Albany.

Assistant Professor of Biology Jennifer Freytag, Ph.D., and students at Sage College of Albany.

In a world where technology is becoming more complex by the minute, students need specialized skills to achieve, contribute and succeed beyond graduation day. Problem solving, information gathering and evidence evaluation are the broadly important strengths that students develop when they study science, technology, math and engineering – the so-called STEM disciplines. These are the academic tracks that focus not on just what students know, but on what they can do with what they know.

President Obama made it a national priority to grow the number of students and educators who are experts in these fields – including the health sciences, computer science, biology, biochemistry and many others – which are in need of scientists, innovators, educators and leaders. These careers will likely be in high demand well into an increasingly tech-heavy future, and the STEM choice promises to be rewarding.

“The growth rate for STEM jobs is more than 15 percent, and these jobs are higher paying,” said Deb Lawrence, Ph.D., RSC  ’88, dean of Russell Sage College and professor of mathematics. “Even for those who graduate with a STEM degree, but find themselves working in a non-STEM field, the salaries they command are higher.”

It might be counterintuitive, but a STEM education doesn’t require forgoing the advantages of a smaller institution like Sage and attending a large public research university. In fact, a 2014 report by the Council on Independent Colleges, showed that small- to mid-sized independent schools are leading the way in preparing students for careers in STEM fields, outperforming public non-doctoral institutions.

The difference of attending a smaller, independent school is marked by personal attention and the benefit of learning in small classes (the average Sage class size is 18). Sage faculty members – in all disciplines – are engaged with their students and committed to providing individual advisement. This kind of intensive academic setting can only bode well for preparing future STEM leaders, and that is certainly true at Sage.

Health Sciences are Hot

Nursing is Sage’s largest undergraduate major, but the school is strong in other health science areas. These programs prepare students for professional careers that engage with the community and improve lives: physical therapy, occupational therapy, nutrition, psychology and forensic mental health.

Sage’s nutrition science department continues to have steady enrollment and offers a rigorous science program. “People may not realize that nutrition requires an in-depth study of many of the scientific disciplines,” said Nina Marinello, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of the nutrition science department. “In addition to introductory and advanced nutrition classes, our students take courses in chemistry, anatomy and physiology, microbiology and exercise physiology, just to name a few. We take nutrition from the plate all the way to the cellular level.”

Manor Nutrition Science Lab, named in memory of Filomena Fusco Manor RSC ’48.

Instructor Gail Sokol on the right and students in the Manor Nutrition Science Lab, named in memory of Filomena Fusco Manor RSC ’48.

The B.S. in Nutrition Science is part of the didactic program in dietetics, which prepares students to apply to dietetic internship programs to eventually become a registered dietician. Both undergraduate and graduate nutrition students at Sage have access to a newly renovated Manor Nutrition Science Lab, named for Filomena Manor RSC ’48, a leader in U.S. Air Force dietetics.

“This lab is state-of-the-art for investigating the properties of food and for food preparation,” said Marinello. “It enhances our curriculum, and we are hoping to use it for outreach education programs.”

The Hannaford Nutrition and Physical Assessment Laboratory

A metabolic cart in the new Hannaford Nutrition and Physical Assessment Laboratory measures a number of metabolic parameters breath-by-breath as a subject cycles on a bicycle ergometer, allowing for the determination of dietary and supplement effects on performance and metabolism in real time.

The Hannaford Nutrition and Physical Assessment Lab is another brand-new nutrition facility on the Troy campus, and includes an advanced piece of equipment called a metabolic cart. “Attached to a stationary bike, the device measures a person’s metabolic and respiratory rate,” said Marinello. “We hope to use this for faculty research, as well as for students in our clinical courses and possibly to offer continuing education to area dietitians.”

Biology – and Beyond

Biology at Sage has expanded to include both Troy and Albany. The applied biology BS at Sage College of Albany has connections to the Physical Therapy, Occupational Therapy and Biochemistry programs. “Our applied biology program increases the options for students to major across the campuses,” said Joanne Curran, Ph.D., dean of Sage College of Albany.

“The cool thing about being a biology major is that it prepares you for all kinds of future careers,” said Biology Professor and Department Chair Mary Rea, Ph.D. “Sure, you can work in a basic STEM field, doing research or becoming an academic, but a biology degree can also prepare you to manage a company. One of our companion disciplines to Applied Biology is business. If you are going to run a biotech company, it’s a pretty good idea to have a background in STEM –but you still need that business education.”

Applied biology can also be paired with mathematics. A new biomathematics companion discipline will prepare students for work using mathematical modeling to forecast changes in the natural world. “Mathematical modeling is important to epidemiology – tracking the spread of disease in population or globally,” Rea said. “It’s also used to study the effects of climate change on the planet and to predict what’s going to happen 10 or 20 years down the road. Students with an interdisciplinary background in both math and biology are the wave of the future. We are going to need folks like that.”

Sparking STEM

RSC Dean Lawrence has a long history of promoting STEM at Sage. Together with Associate Professor of Mathematics Tina Mancuso, Lawrence received a seven-year grant to create the Girls Excited about Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science program. Running from 2003 to 2010, GEMS promoted the participation of middle and high school girls in STEM activities on the RSC campus. “Somewhere between 800 and 1,000 students came through Sage during that time,” Lawrence said.

Research has shown that exposing students early is important to sparking interest and curiosity about STEM careers. The paper, “Young Adolescents’ Views of Engineering: Immediate and Longer-Lasting Impressions of a Video Intervention,” was co-authored by Sybillyn Jennings, Ph.D., retired professor of psychology; Julie McIntyre, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology; and Sarah Butler, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, and published in the peer-reviewed “Journal of Career Development.” Their study reveals the difficulty of dispelling stereotypes around the field of engineering, particularly for girls, and highlights methods that work to interest young people in STEM careers.

“Most people, by eighth grade, have narrowed down possible professions and know what they want to do – or what they don’t want to do,” said McIntyre. Her research showed that girls who viewed a video focusing on the ‘helping’ function of engineering, rather than as something done in isolation and working with ‘things’ rather than people, were more likely to be interested in the field as a career option.

“Children need to have exposure early on in order to put STEM careers on their radar,” McIntyre said. Parents and educators need to show support for science to inspire and promote those values in the next generation.

Likewise, once a student exhibits enthusiasm and interest in a STEM field, it’s important to keep that interest bubbling. “The best time to get students interested in STEM is probably elementary and middle school,” said Assistant Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Thomas Gray, Ph.D. “But if they get to college and they are still interested, the last thing we want is for them to get beaten down with memorization of rote material.” As it turns out, participation in research is where it’s at for keeping undergraduate students engaged in and excited about science.

Gray’s former student Lisa Eytel RSC ’14 earned a dual major in chemistry and forensic science with a minor in criminal justice. “I came to Sage because of their forensic science program,” said Eytel, a native of the Seattle area. “In my sophomore year, however, Professor Gray and [now-retired biology professor] Professor Heimke told me I had a talent for the hard sciences. Professor Gray really took me under his wing and nurtured my inquisitiveness.”

Regarding her experiences with undergraduate research, Eytel said, “Organic chemistry challenged my patience and showed me I could physically search for answers to questions through bench work. After months of failed experiments, it was so rewarding to see something come to fruition.”

Eytel is pursuing a doctorate in organic chemistry at the University of Oregon, and she says she hopes to one day teach at a small college similar to Sage. “I would love to inspire students and get involved in STEM outreach and mentorship for middle school girls.”

CSTEP: Strengthening STEM Students

STEM education at Sage recently received a huge boost of funding, which translates into specialized support and new opportunities for science-hungry students. The New York State Collegiate Science and Technology Entry Program is a funding plan backed by the NYS Department of Education. These competitive grants have been awarded to more than 50 colleges and universities in the state. Through the program, Sage will receive a total of $2 million over a period of five years (roughly $400,000 annually).

The aim of CSTEP is to strengthen and sustain the academic progress of talented underrepresented and economically disadvantaged students who are pursuing STEM majors, health-related fields,  and/or who have their eyes on a licensed  professional career. In addition to other criteria, eligible students must be in good academic standing and enrolled full time in one of the approved programs of study.

More than 250 students a year from RSC, SCA and the School of Professional and Continuing Education are expected to benefit from the award. This is not a tuition-relief program; instead, CSTEP offers primarily academic support, said Donna Heald, Ph.D., associate provost and co-author of the grant. “The program provides opportunities to gain the research experiences that are crucial to these careers.”

Heald came to Sage in 2013 from Fordham University, where she had acted as associate dean for science education and director of pre-health professions advising since 2006. She received her bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Scranton and both her master’s and doctorate in chemistry from RPI. (She served as Russell Sage College dean before being named associate provost; she was Sage’s first dean with a background in chemistry.)

At Fordham, Heald was closely involved with the CSTEP initiative. “I came to Sage knowing we had to apply,” she said. “The grant has a five-year cycle, and 2015 was the year.” Despite the competitive nature of the program, Heald had every confidence that Sage would qualify. “We are the definition of the institutions they are targeting,” she said. “Nursing is our largest undergraduate program, with Biology and Applied Biology close behind.”

Regarding the other CSTEP parameters of state residency and economic need, Heald noted, “Most of our students are from New York state, and because of the number of scholarships and the amount of financial aid we offer, even though we are a private institution, [the cost of] a Sage education is competitive with state schools.” The bottom line here: Sage does not turn away good students who may be financially challenged, and these are the students that CSTEP is designed to help.

The CSTEP program provides comprehensive support to students to help them be successful with their coursework, as well as gain valuable experience outside the classroom.  “Last summer, six students participated in undergraduate research projects for several weeks with Sage faculty members.  The students received a stipend for their work, as well as housing and meals for non-local [outside of the Capital Region] students,” Heald said. “Many of our CSTEP-eligible students would need to take a job over the summer, but it makes so much more sense for them to do work that supports their educational goals.”

Eligible students who apply for CSTEP enrollment may also receive travel funds to present their research at conferences and stipends to defray the cost of licensing exams or exam-prep courses that may otherwise be beyond their budget. At Sage, CSTEP students also have access to additional tutors who provide supplemental one-on-one or small-group study sessions.

“We can connect students with peer mentors on campus,” said Sage’s CSTEP Director Felicia Collins. Alumni in particular, make excellent mentors. “We are very fortunate to have Gloria Jimpson, a three-time graduate of Sage [RSC, 1978; M.S., School of Health Sciences, 1981; M.S. School of Management, 1993], mentoring nursing students. Any time you can encourage an alum to return and get involved, that is a win-win for the students and for the alum – allowing them to give back.”

Jimpson agrees, and, perhaps because of her years of nursing and management expertise, she has insight into what CSTEP students might need most. “These are excellent students,” she said, “but they may have stressors from their background. They need to learn how to focus on their own goals and take care of themselves in the process.” About mentoring, Jimpson said, “CSTEP helps connect these students with other professionals like myself. We can offer them these additional blessings – resume help, conversation, the ability to see themselves on equal footing with people at the next level. It’s very fulfilling for me.”

Learn More About CSTEP at Sage.

STEM + Art = STEAM

The Art + Design Technology Center at Sage College of Albany.

The Art + Design Technology Center at Sage College of Albany.

We know that an education in STEM disciplines is important for building a professional workforce that is productive and successful. On it’s own, however, STEM is missing several key components of learning traditionally associated with the arts. That’s where STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) comes in, highlighting the advantages that art skills bring to problem solving and ingenuity.

“Creative work helps people see when they might need to find a new perspective on a problem, to think of things differently,” said SCA Dean Curran. “It all comes back to the interdisciplinary nature of the world we are living in now, and the need to think more broadly and more creatively about solutions to today’s issues.” SCA’s core three-course curriculum, dubbed i.Think, develops skills related to critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, leadership, design thinking and community engagement.

The STEM-to-STEAM movement is gaining momentum, and for good reason. “The writer Scott McCloud has a great definition: Anything we do that’s not directly concerned with survival or procreation is art,” says Art + Design Professor Matt McElligott, author and illustrator of numerous children’s books, including the new “Mad Scientist Academy.”

“We could get by eating bland grains and raw meat, but what do we do instead? We create recipes and take the time to make a dish that looks and tastes appetizing. We make decisions that are not based purely on function, and we opt for an aesthetic experience.” Humans habitually do this kind of embellishing – even the nerdiest, most science-geeky among us.

As a case in point, take the new Art + Design Technology Center at SCA. Described by McElligott, who has been a faculty member since 1998, as “one of the best things we ever did as an art department,” the new community workspace is filled with leading-edge technology including laser cutters, large-format, 3D printers and pressure-sensitive touch-screens – all used to make beautiful, imaginative, wholly impractical art.

The MakerBot in the Art + Design Technology Center.

The MakerBot in the Art + Design Technology Center.

As the coordinator of the Technology Center, artist Mindy McDaniel helps to implement ideas that are born at the intersection of science and art. “I have taught at other area institutions, and these amazing tools – like the laser cutter and the 3D printer – are often located in other departments, not art,” she said. “The machines might be housed in engineering or architecture. Here at Sage, we have embraced the role of digital fabrication in art and coupled it with traditional techniques.” In other words, aspiring artists who formerly learned to use only hand tools to sculpt, now need to master 3D technology as well, and they are doing it at Sage.

At the Opalka Gallery, the intersection of art and science – well, the art of video games – is literally on display. The show, “From Concept to Console: Art & Aesthetics in Video Game Design,” which ran throughout fall 2015, was co-curated by Opalka Director Elizabeth Greenberg and Adjunct Professor Ed Ticson.

“I’m on my soapbox all the time about STEAM,” said Greenberg. “That A for art is what makes companies like Apple successful. Look at great industrial design: Sure, it’s technology, but it is also art. When technology and art work together, something really incredible is produced.” Something incredible, and incredibly popular, like video games.

The exhibition took a little under two years to create, and it was a labor of love for Greenberg, who knew this grand undertaking would resonate deeply with the campus. “We have an art department here that is heavily focused on design,” said Greenberg. “The games and associated 2D art included in the show are all representative of how technology and art work together.”

Greenberg and Ticson were able to secure the best work and artists of the last ten years, including a game produced by Capital-Region-based Vicarious Visions. Each represents not only beautiful art, but also how technology can be used to inspire and create that art. Concept artists are involved long before a game is made, and, in fact, their ideas often influence how the game experience is developed. “In game design, the art is integral to the final product,” Greenberg said. The 2D images included in the Opalka show were created by the concept artists behind “Machinarium,” “Botanicula,” “Skylanders: SWAP Force,” “The Dream Machine,” “The Unfinished Swan,” “Transistor” and “Tengami.”

Greenberg has a young child at home who is, of course, attracted to video games. Asked how she feels about that situation, she described perhaps the ultimate real-world integration of science and art. “My son gets an hour of screen time a day – that is, if he has practiced the piano and done his math homework.” Like STEAM, it’s all about balance.

Promisingly, the technologist-artists that Greenberg has encountered represent a new hybrid strain of innovators. “The people I have met who work on games are very intelligent and thoughtful, with wide-ranging knowledge. I think gaming is being pushed forward rapidly – and independent games are moving even more quickly – in terms of creating experimental branches off the main stream. It’s a young medium, you know. Only 40 years old, and look how far we’ve come!”