MTSU undergraduate students are taking their second and third steps in the early summer session FirstSTEP program.
The 30-plus rising sophomores and juniors are in the midst of a three-week research phase in the STEM process to acclimate them better in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The FirstSTEP program at MTSU is a five-year, $2 million grant funded by the National Science Foundation. It is an enrichment program that provides financial and academic support for students majoring in biology, chemistry, computer science, engineering technology, geosciences, mathematics and physics and astronomy.
FirstSTEP offers three components:
- A two-week “summer bridge” to help them in math just before the fall academic semester begins.
- Fall and spring seminar precalculus and calculus classes, helping them grow in these areas of math and in college life skills.
- Introducing the students to team-based research
The research phase, which is what MTSU officials call “summer immersion,” is where they are now.
Their research is helping them learn about pervious concrete, robots and 3-D printing, green algae and other organisms collected in the field and DNA next-generation sequencing.
“Many times undergraduate research is just juniors and seniors,” said mathematical sciences professor Ginger Holmes Rowell, the day-to-day FirstSTEP director. “This is for students at the end of their freshman year.”
“All of the FirstSTEP experiences work together to help improve retention and graduation of science and engineering majors while preparing these students for successful careers in their chosen fields,” Rowell added.
Through the grant, students receive a stipend of about $1,000 from the National Science Foundation to help offset the cost of not working 40 hours a week for three weeks.
“The FirstSTEP program has been a really good experience,” said Donte Kirk of Chattanooga, Tennessee, a rising junior mechatronics engineering major completing his second year with FirstSTEP. “It’s good for when you’re not too great in math, but you want to excel in those areas.”
Sophomore Jasmine McCroskey, also from Chattanooga, “enjoyed the hands-on experience of the genetics,” she said. “It definitely gave me a background since I had not taken a class.” A biochemistry major with a concentration in pre-pharmacy, she is in her first year with the program.
Sophomore chemistry major Megan Schulz of Milton, Tennessee, is among the group researching pervious concrete.
“What we’re trying to do is grow microbial and algae community in the pervious concrete to make for cleaner and less polluted runoff water,” Schulz said.
Faculty mentors include Jeff Leblond and Mohamed “Moh” Salem in biology; John DiVincenzo in chemistry; and Ahad Nasab and Saeed Foroudastan in engineering technology. Foroudastan serves as associate dean in the College of Basic and Applied Sciences.
With most of the teams containing five students, FirstSTEP leaders are experimenting in the overall format with one 12- to 15-member team led by Leblond, who has three assistants. They are running the research team as a class, combining fieldwork and laboratory research to produce new scientific results.
“The midterm presentations of this group make this educational experiment look very promising,” Rowell said.
Their research includes field trips, one of which was to Burgess Falls State Park between Cookeville and Sparta, Tennessee.
Dr. Tom Cheatham, director of MTSU’s Tennessee STEM Education Center, not only led the grant-writing effort that resulted in the National Science Foundation award, but he also leads the project and serves as a liaison with the internal and external advisory boards and the NSF program officers.
To learn more about the FirstSTEP program, visit http://www.mtsu.edu/firststep/, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 615-898-2175.
— Randy Weiler (Randy.Weiler@mtsu.edu)