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Planning, projects, discussions fill 20th-annual CS Conference

The 20th-annual Cottrell Scholar Conference, “Leading Change: Engaging Your Students, Colleagues and the Public to Transform STEM Education,” held in mid-July in Tucson, AZ, continued the RCSA tradition of encouraging innovation at research universities.

“You hold the key to quality and excellence in higher education,” RCSA’s new president, Robert Shelton, told the attending Cottrell Scholars from around the nation. He urged Scholars to parley their dedication to excellence in research and teaching into a larger role at their institutions and beyond. 

Traditionally the conference offers an opportunity for new Scholars to present their innovative ideas for improving education. Those making oral presentations in 2014 included: Theodor Agapie, chemistry, Caltech; Shannon Boettcher, chemistry, University of Oregon; Andrew Boydston, chemistry, University of Washington; Rebecca Butcher, chemistry, University of Florida; Dinah Loerke, physics, University of Denver; Andriy Nevidomskyy, physics, Rice University; Jennifer Prescher, chemistry, UC Irvine; Joseph Subotnik, chemistry, University of Pennsylvania; and Xiaodong Xu, physics, University of Washington.

Also at the conference, the Foundation offers up to four $25,000 awards annually to teams of Cottrell Scholars working collaboratively. Proposals for this latest round of collaborative awards are due July 25, 2014. 

In the meantime, members of the Cottrell Scholar Collaborative reported on their ongoing collaborative projects, which included:

--  a how-to book nearing publication that will help beginning science professors cope with their first tumultuous semesters;

--  the success of a newly created annual workshop for that same cohort;

--  initial panels from a science-oriented comic book for fourth- and fifth-graders;

--  a computer repository for tips on effective teaching, and;

--  a workshop to improve the skills of teaching assistants in science at major universities.

In addition, RCSA staff announced the creation of a new $25,000 award to recognize the outstanding accomplishments of Cottrell Scholars. The TREE Award (Transformational Research and Excellence in Education) is also aimed at improving undergraduate education at research universities. (Full details.) 

This most recent Cottrell Scholar Conference drew more than 50 Scholars, many of them top early career professors from American research universities, as well as a dozen representatives of national organizations including the Association of American Universities, the American Chemical Society, the American Institute of Physics and the Association of Public Land Universities. The meeting was co-chaired by Cottrell Scholar Andrew Feig, chemistry, Wayne State University, and RCSA Program Director Silvia Ronco.

Conference keynote speakers included:

Mats Selen, physics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

An experimental high-energy physicist and 1996 Cottrell Scholar, Selen talked about his “showbiz” career as the resident physics expert – the “Whys Guy” -- on a local TV news morning show; he also discussed the joys of overseeing a “physics van” developed to promote science among the grade school population.

But Selen and his colleagues are much better known, in educational circles at least, for developing the i-clicker classroom response system and smartPhysics, an interactive, student centered physics curriculum. Thanks to the i-clicker and smartPhysics, as well as a rare example of department-wide buy-in, Selen and colleagues successfully “flipped” the big lecture classes in their calculus-based introductory physics courses.  By providing pre-lecture modules of information on computer and using i-clickers to poll student in class response to conceptual questions, Selen said, the fraction of students who find the classroom sessions useful went from roughly 40 percent to 80 percent – and no textbook is needed. “We’ve known for a long time that students don’t read the book,” he noted.

Selen announced he’s now at work on a “physics lab on a chip” a handheld electronic device that will enable students to perform numerous quantitative experiments with just a laptop outside a formal lab setting and document their results.

Cathy Middlecamp, chemistry, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

A professor in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at UW, Middlecamp wove her message – about the need for teacher/scholars and their students to “connect the dots” from their labs to the larger world -- into a story.  She told of her struggle to nail down the precise meaning and significance of the Madison campus’ annual energy-use figure of 400 million Kilowatt hours against a broader background of the carbon cycle in general and the more specific issue of defining energy sustainability, much less achieving it.

“When you are so busy with all the things you have to do, you can miss the big one because it doesn’t have a whistle,” she said, noting that she began thinking about energy issues after a close call with a coal train while she was bicycling across campus.

“By making connections, we and our students can learn to better ‘see’ the principles of science at work in many places in our local, regional, and global communities,” Middlecamp said. “If we understand the connections, the stage is set for transforming the way we think and learn, possibly even seeing the consequences of our actions and inactions.”

Robert Shelton, president, Research Corporation for Science Advancement.

A former president of the University of Arizona (2006-2011), Shelton started his career as an experimental condensed-matter physicist. He told the Scholars that as an administrator, he felt it was important to listen to faculty suggestions when faced with major institutional challenges.

He devoted part of his keynote address to discussing RCSA’s ongoing strategic planning process, and asked for suggestions from the assembled Scholars. Among the issues and suggestions raised in this discussion: RCSA should consider sponsoring a substantive leadership class for Scholars; whether the CS program is currently the right size, in terms of numbers and the amount of awards; how the CS program can continue to attract more applicants; whether the science community might benefit from another level of competitive awards – for example, to enable Scholars to turn their research of several years in entirely new directions.

Shelton promised to take the Scholars’ suggestions into account as he formulated the strategic priorities of RCSA in collaboration with the RCSA Board of Directors.

The conference also featured four breakout sessions for intensive discussions on the topics of how scientists can engage the public, students, and colleagues, as well as how to interact effectively with the Cottrell Scholar Collaborative.

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