Students at Perimeter continue to pursue their STEM path

Two Perimeter College students were chosen to participate in NASA’s Community College Aerospace Scholars (NCAS) program. The program will allow the STEM students to gain experience in their respective fields.

John Weber, a mathematics professor at Perimeter’s Clarkston campus, said that he has encouraged his students to apply to the NCAS program for the past two years. Weber has also directed students to partake in extracurricular STEM programs such as Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) programs and the Community College Innovation Challenge (CCIC).

“Programs like NCAS, CCIC, and REUs provide students with experience in conducting collaborative research with researchers and other college students that help them put their classroom knowledge into practice,” Weber said. “This experience will be invaluable to them as they prepare to transfer to four-year institutions and as they prepare for their careers.”

In 2007, the University System of Georgia (USG) set up the USG STEM Initiative to increase student access and success in STEM fields. One of the ways in which the USG continues to do this is by improving STEM college readiness for students from preschool to 12th grade. However, a study conducted by the Atlanta-based Randstad US showed that younger students maintain a higher interest in STEM subjects compared to high school students.

Of the 1,000 students that participated in the study, those between the ages of 11 and 14 were 18 percent more likely to consider math their favorite subject. The study also revealed that there is a lack of understanding regarding what job opportunities are available in STEM fields. Forty-nine percent of participants aged 11 to 17 were not aware of the jobs that mathematicians could do and 76 percent did not know what engineers do for a living.

The executive summary of a 2013 National Center for Education Statistics study on the declining number of college students staying on STEM career paths pointed out that 48 percent of bachelor’s degree students and 69 percent of associate’s degree students who entered STEM fields between 2003 and 2009 changed their major by the spring of the later year. Half of those students switched to non-STEM majors.

Chair of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering and Coordinator of STEM Initiatives for Perimeter College Cynthia Lester said that limited support and resources has played a significant role in the diversion of students from STEM fields.  

“According to the National Math and Science Initiative, it is the declining number of students who are prepared to take rigorous college courses in science and math and who are trained for careers in those fields that has fueled the STEM crisis,” Lester said.

Lester said the report noted that between 10 to 25 percent of high schools do not offer more than one of the core courses in the typical sequence of high school math and science education, such as algebra, geometry, biology, and chemistry.

“For black, Latino, American Indian, and Alaskan Native students, there is even less access where only a quarter of high schools with the highest percentage of black and Latino students do not offer Algebra II and a third of these schools do not offer chemistry,” Lester said.

Lester said that programs such as NCAS, CCIC and REU’s have a significant impact on the retention of STEM field college graduates.

“These experiences have been shown to impact student retention as well as influence students’ decision to persist in and pursue STEM careers,” Lester said. “Therefore, co-curricular programs, internships and research experiences, especially in STEM disciplines, are essential instruments for developing the next generation of STEM professionals.”

Amadou Bah, who studies computer engineering at Perimeter College, has participated in the Georgia Institute of Technology’s REU program, the Young Mathematicians Conference (YMC) at Ohio State University and Mathematicians of Color Alliance (MOCA) Solve-a-Thon.

“Each program introduced me to a number of subject areas such as numerical analysis, graph theory, and compressive sensing,” Bah said. “With much exposure, despite not being 100 percent sure about what career path I want to take, I feel that continued participation in such programs will help increase my understanding about my fields of interest, and will eventually help me pick the right career choice.”

Bah said that Perimeter has effectively promoted STEM programs to help students find their footing in the field.

“Programs such as MESA, PSLSAMP, STEP, CLACEC, and WISE (a new one) all promote STEM effectively,” Bah said. “One can find numerous flyers on bulletin boards all over campus publicizing such programs. Also, in all the courses that I have taken, the professors make sure to mention them during class or post information in iCollege.”      

From Oct. 23-26, Perimeter students Alana Burrell and Zachary Palmtree will work with NASA engineers on research at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and take part in a Mars model rover building competition. Participants in the program must be U.S. citizens studying science, mathematics, engineering or computer science (STEM).

The two STEM majors competed with other students in the U.S. in a five-week online version of the program. Burrell, who is a computer science engineer major, admitted that the online trial was initially intimidating.

I was very discouraged starting this course because I didn’t understand anything but I believe any course is like that,” Burrell said. “You may know one or two things but you never know enough to suffice starting out. After I got into the articles, the questions on the quiz became easier for me.”

According to Palmtree, an engineer major, the course focused on NASA’s planned mission to Mars and taught program participants about the importance of NASA’s work throughout its history.

“The course also talked about the direct impact that NASA has on everyday life such as improving the wingtips on commercial airplanes,” Palmtree said. “Every student chose a topic from three different options to write a report on. I chose to write my report on NASA’s “The Evolvable Mars Campaign – Study Status”, which is a study on our current abilities regarding travel to Mars.”

Burrell said she anticipates that working on a team to build the Mars rover and competing with other groups in the program will be the biggest challenge while at the center. The model rover will be made from a Lego robotics kit called Lego Mindstorms EV3, which allows the user to build functioning robot models with programmable bricks.

Burrell said she looks forward to learning more about how NASA functions as a company and view her participation in the program as an opportunity to network. Palmtree said the program is an “amazing opportunity” for STEM students wanting to make a positive impact on people’s lives through science.

“I think the program is an amazing opportunity for students interested in engineering or space to gain insight from NASA on how different engineering and science fields come together to create some amazing works that help us all to learn to more about the universe and to help improve the lives of those around us,” Palmtree said.