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Leading the way in STEM education

February 3, 2015

In an effort to drive systemic reform of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education, Michigan Engineering is co-leading a national program that will give more undergraduates and master's students deep experience in faculty research.

A $5 million grant from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust has established the Vertically Integrated Projects consortium—a group of 15 universities. Among them are institutions that primarily serve underrepresented, minority or nontraditional students, as well as members of the Association of American Universities.

The VIP consortium expands a program that has been under way at several universities, including U-M, for around a decade. Georgia Tech will lead the effort with U-M.

The program takes a unique approach to student involvement in faculty research. Rather than typical semester- or year-long lab assignments for individual students, it forms student teams that work closely with faculty research groups for a long time—perhaps most of a student's undergraduate career. Teams can range from about 10 to upwards of 30 people. That makes them big enough to become "self-sustaining," says Gail Hohner, managing director of Michigan Engineering's Multidisciplinary Design Program.

"Two or three students in a lab require lots and lots of effort on the part of the faculty member," Hohner said. "And typically the students aren't there for a long time. But when you have a critical mass of students that stick around, they start to self-organize. You'll have a cohort of underclassmen that grows up in the lab. They'll be mentored by the upperclassman and professional master's students on the team."

The program aims to maximize benefits for both professors and students.

"We are working to broaden the experiential learning opportunities for our students in ways that deepen their technical knowledge and give them a holistic, systems thinking perspective," said Brian Gilchrist, co-director of the Multidisciplinary Design Program and a professor of electrical and computer engineering and atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences.

"In the real world, engineers work with many other disciplines and perspectives and we believe this program will help us broaden our efforts to integrate that reality into our degree programs."

With more than 35 undergraduates and professional master's students this semester, Gilchrist's lab hosts a long running team at U-M. For the past three years, they've been designing a mission to test the feasibility of smartphone-sized spacecraft that are driven not with traditional chemical propellants, but instead with what he calls "electrodynamic tethers." These wires use the Earth's magnetic field and energy from the Sun to move spacecraft. The team hopes to have a prototype built by the end of next year.

In all, eight teams are operating presently at U-M. For example, Huei Peng, associate director of the Michigan Mobility Transformation Center, leads a team in its second year of using big data to develop connected vehicle technologies. In atmospheric, oceanic and space sciences, 14 students are working with associate professors Allison Steiner and Derek Posselt to model Great Lakes water flows.

With the new grant, U-M can at least double the number of teams in the short term, and help other universities launch their own programs.

This program offers an ideal setting for rethinking STEM education, according to Georgia Tech, because it draws students of various ages, interests and experiences together for ongoing work. Projects can last a decade or more.

"For many students, this is the first chance they've had to do something real while they're undergraduates," said Edward Coyle, Arbutus Chair for the Integration of Research and Education at Georgia Tech. He is the Georgia Tech VIP program's founder and director.

The experience better informs their classroom study and often leads to publishing research papers or deciding to continue into graduate research in STEM fields.

The Helmsley Charitable Trust's education program aims to increase American competitiveness and innovation. At the postsecondary level, it focuses on increasing the number and diversity of college graduates in STEM fields by boosting persistence to graduation.

"The Helmsley Charitable Trust is thrilled to support the VIP consortium's transformative approach to active learning in engineering," said Ryan Kelsey, program officer at the trust. "It is very compelling to see such a range of engineering schools across the country that are ready to adopt large-scale, effective practices that we expect will retain more students, particularly more women and students of color."

The VIP consortium consists of 15 public and private institutions, including two universities abroad: National Ilan University in Taiwan and the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. The U.S. universities also include Purdue University, Texas A&M, Rice University, the University of Washington, Howard University, Morehouse College, Florida International University, Boise State University, Colorado State University, the University of Hawaii at Manoa and Virginia Commonwealth University.