DIVAS scholars engage STEM undergraduate students

One might expect to find DIVAS in the Communications Building among Doane University’s 200 music majors. But perhaps not in the Lied Science and Mathematics Building among biosciences majors. There, DIVAS scholars are testing ways to engage STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) undergraduates improving their computer literacy skills.

“It’s oddly stunning but a known phenomenon that natural science students tend to avoid computers and math,” said Tessa Durham Brooks, associate professor of biology, one of three faculty collaborating on the $300,000 project funded by the National Science Foundation. Mark Meysenburg, Doane professor of information science; Erin Doyle, Doane assistant professor of biology; and Raychelle Burks, a former visiting professor at Doane and now assistant professor of chemistry at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, are also engaged. Tim Frey, Doane professor of education, is helping to evaluate the project.

The goal is to develop ways for natural sciences students to learn how to use computers, which are essential tools in modern science. Incoming students are computer savvy, Meysenburg said, but their skills are siloed – they may be proficient in using Google docs, Instagram and games, but not in using Excel spreadsheets or in coding to build images or design experiments.

“Digital Imaging and Vision Application in Science” students were recruited as first-year students. They participated in a one-credit seminar, a week of coding boot camps, and research projects through which they learned skills to build the type of images used by scientists.

“We are trying to give them competence, confidence and curiosity,” Meysenburg said.

“And we work to help students learn how desirable these skills are,” Durham Brooks added.

The faculty measured students’ attitudes, coding skills, growth in computational thinking, and confidence in using these toward a career path both before and after their experiences. The positive results are surprising and encouraging.

Now in its second year, the first cohort is mentoring the new class.

“The hardest needle to move has been affecting intended career path, but that may not be surprising,” Durham Brooks said, instead, the team is making a much greater impact in helping students build a collaborative network of scholars.

Meysenburg is presenting the findings at an international computer sciences conference (SIGCSE), where he said it’s unusual for an institution like Doane to be invited to present. He said faculty at the University of Nebraska have been impressed by the findings, and a similar project is rolling out at St. Edward’s.

After students leave the DIVAS project, the hope is that they use their skills in upper division classes, Durham Brooks said. And because so many natural sciences students lack these skills, Doane students who do have them will find themselves in high demand, she said.

“They will be able to land positions and jobs immediately in graduate school, biotechnology companies, ag industries, et cetera” she said.

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