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New Program Combines STEM Education and Entrepreneurship
Published: Monday, December 10, 2012

North Carolina Central University has taken another step in its continuing efforts to enroll and graduate more science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) majors. A grant of $1.75 million over four years from the National Science Foundation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program (HBCU-UP) will allow NCCU to implement DREAM STEM. The program, whose acronym stands for “Driving Research, Entrepreneurship and Academics through Mastering STEM,” takes a three-pronged approach that includes early identification of students as scientists, entrepreneurship in science education, and STEM faculty development through teaching and learning research mini-grants.

According to Dr. Caesar Jackson, interim dean of graduate studies and principal investigator for the grant, growing the number of African-Americans involved in STEM requires connecting students to those disciplines well before they declare a major. “We have to develop a STEM cohort through learning communities,” he said. “It’s not enough to hope that they bump into each other in a science class.” Working with NCCU’s Office of Orientation and First-Year Experience, DREAM STEM will offer a two-credit orientation-style course for new students planning to declare a science major. In addition, the program will offer five $4,000 scholarships annually, student research experiences and travel and presentation assistance. Targeted majors for the program are biology; chemistry; mathematics; physics; environmental, earth and geospatial sciences; and pharmaceutical sciences.

DREAM STEM will challenge students to take research beyond discovery, and to consider how to translate discoveries into products that can be brought to market. Through a new Research, Discovery and Innovation Summer Institute, STEM majors will participate in an eight-week science-based entrepreneurship program focused on the research-and-development portion of the entrepreneurship cycle. Dr. Malavika Sundararajan, assistant professor in the School of Business and co-principal investigator in the project, will provide training during the institute. Sundararajan is an expert in new venture creation and immigrant and international entrepreneurship.

“Our competitiveness as a country is dependent on entrepreneurship,” said Jackson. “Students working with nanoparticles shouldn’t stop with understanding how they work; we want them to consider how the nanoparticles can be imbedded to create a better sensor.”

The NCCU School of Business has created a certification program in technological entrepreneurship available to STEM majors. “Successful completion of the program will give students a certificate in technological entrepreneurship along with their undergraduate degree,” said Jackson.

The concept of teaching as research is the final component of DREAM STEM. Research conducted by STEM professors will be used to increase understanding of how students learn, particularly in gatekeeper STEM classes. “These are the courses where many students begin to struggle,” said Jackson. “They are required for students considering a STEM focus.”

Much of the research to be conducted by faculty will study the attitudes and expectations of students and is based in social science, an area not familiar to many of the STEM faculty. To assure the validity of the research, Dr. Robert Mathieu, professor of astronomy at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, will serve on an external advisory committee. Mathieu has led national initiatives for the improvement of science higher education, including the National Institute for Science Education, where he led the development of the Field-tested Learning Assessment Guide (FLAG) and other resources for science, engineering, and mathematics faculty. He is currently director of the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching and Learning, a National Science Foundation Center for Learning and Teaching, focused on the preparation of science, engineering, and math graduate students.

Dr. Kevin Eagan, assistant director for research for the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California–Los Angeles, will provide expertise in identification of students as scientists. Andrew Schwab, president of First Flight Venture Center, a technology and life science incubator in Research Triangle Park, will lend his expertise to the entrepreneurial side of the program. First Flight serves the needs of entrepreneurs and early-stage companies by providing leasable office and laboratory space for technology and life science companies. Both Eagan and Schwab will serve on the external advisory committee with Mathieu.

Additional co-investigators for the project are: Dr. Alade Tokuta, professor in the College of Arts and Sciences; Dr. Veronica Nwosu, biology professor; and Dr. Yolanda Anderson, professor of environmental, earth and geospatial sciences.

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