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Largest-Ever Cottrell Scholar Conference, 2016

Newly minted Cottrell Scholar Katheryn Haas, Saint Mary's College, receives a memento of her achievement from Rigoberto Hernandez, Johns Hopkins University. Hernandez is a 2016 TREE Award winner who became a Cottrell Scholar in 1999.
Newly minted Cottrell Scholar Katheryn Haas, Saint Mary's College, receives a memento of her achievement from Rigoberto Hernandez, Johns Hopkins University. Hernandez is a 2016 TREE Award winner who became a Cottrell Scholar in 1999.

The 22nd Annual Cottrell Scholar Conference, with 86 attendees, was the largest to date and marked the first time Scholars from research-intensive universities as well as primarily undergraduate institutions were fully integrated at the event.

As the two-and-a-half-day conference opened July 13 in Tucson, Ariz., RCSA President Robert Shelton reminded attending Scholars that they are members of the CS community “for life,” and that they are welcome to attend the conference throughout their careers. He also noted the program makes available a series of competitive awards appropriate for Scholars at various stages of their academic lives

“You have an opportunity with the Cottrell Scholar Conference to meet other Scholars and to really start making connections with your colleagues in physics, chemistry and astronomy,” Shelton said. “I urge you to get to know a lot of other people.”

The largest number of newly minted Cottrell Scholars – 24 – delivered brief talks on their individual plans for improving STEM education at their institutions. Adding to that total were two Scholars from the Cottrell-Fulbright Scholar Award, recently created by the German-American Fulbright Commission. They are Sebastian Slama, physics, University of Tübingen, and Olalla Vázquez, chemistry, University of Marburg.

Keynote speakers at this year’s conference were Catherine Drennan, HHMI professor and investigator, chemistry and biology, MIT, and Eric Mazur, applied physics area dean and professor of physics at Harvard University.

Drennan spoke on "What Every Teacher and Mentor Should Know: A Guide to Identifying and Reducing Stereotype Threat to Maximize Student Performance." She said her “aha moment” concerning diversity-training occurred when she asked an underrepresented minority undergraduate student why he left his STEM major, and he said, “I never had a TA who believed in me.”

Drennan said she was stunned by the response, “since my experience with our graduate student TAs was so positive.” She asked the student to recall what these graduate student TAs had said, and he replied, “It’s not what my TAs said, it is what they didn’t say.” In that moment, Drennan said, “I realized the importance of diversity-training to teacher training and also to mentor training. When a TA or mentor says nothing, different students take away very different messages; with one student interpreting silence as an indication that everything is perfect and another student interpreting that silence as an indication that failure is assured.”

Drennan described diversity training material that can be used to train both researchers and educators on issues of unconscious bias and stereotype threat. The material freely available at

Mazur spoke on "Assessment: The Silent Killer of Learning, asking the question, “Why is it that stellar students sometimes fail in the workplace while dropouts succeed?” He noted that one reason is that “Most, if not all, of our current assessment practices are inauthentic. Just as the lecture focuses on the delivery of information to students, so does assessment often focus on having students regurgitate that same information back to the instructor.” Consequently, Mazur argued, “assessment fails to focus on the skills that are relevant in life in the 21st century. Assessment has been called the ‘hidden curriculum’ as it is an important driver of students’ study habits. Unless we rethink our approach to assessment, it will be very difficult to produce a meaningful change in education.”

Every year RCSA funds up to four, two-year, $25,000 awards to teams of Cottrell Scholars formed during the annual conference, and ideas produced at the most recent event are now under consideration, according to RCSA Senior Program Director Silvia Ronco. She noted that successful proposals must have the potential to positively impact undergraduate and/or graduate science education in the classroom, at the departmental level, or at the national level.

Progress reports delivered at the conference by current Cottrell Scholars Collaborative Teams, included:

-  Exploring a Community-Based Entrepreneurial Approach to STEM Education, presented by Mats Selen, physics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign;

-  Cottrell Scholar Collaborative New Faculty Workshop, presented by Andrew Feig, chemistry, Wayne State University, and Rory Waterman, chemistry, University of Vermont

- 3D-MoChI: Three Dimensional Models for Chemistry Instruction, presented by Ognjen Miljanic, chemistry, University of Houston;

- National Collegiate Scholastic Association, presented by Jennifer Ross, physics, University of Massachusetts Amherst;

- Academic Leadership Training, presented by Rigoberto Hernandez, chemistry, Johns Hopkins University.

Hernandez, a 2016 TREE (Transformational Research and Excellence in Education) Award winner, also delivered an acceptance speech detailing how his early years as a Cuban-American were guided by important mentors and how his early experiences led directly to his work supporting underrepresented minorities and women students in the physical sciences.  Besides his many academic achievements and honors, Hernandez is the director of the Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity (OXIDE), a $1.6 million, five-year effort aimed at moving beyond factors which have resulted in many chemistry departments being under-represented with respect to gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation and disabilities. 

“In the last five years, the Cottrell Scholar Program has evolved from being rather small to becoming a large and diverse program with several layers of complexity. At the conference, not only do we welcome the new Cottrell Scholar cohort (that now includes Cottrell-Fulbright Fellows), we also honor the teacher-scholar trajectory of some of our past Cottrell-Scholars through the TREE award, and encourage participants to interact meaningfully by forming collaborative teams,” notes Silvia Ronco, RCSA Senior Program Director.  Ronco directs the Cottrell Scholar program. “All these pieces make the conference a great success, but what people value most is the great networking opportunity.”

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