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High school students, teachers sought for NMSU summer institutes

When it comes to attracting students to careers as scientists and engineers - and then helping them achieve their academic goals - many of the obstacles have "mathematics" written all over them.


Faculty members in the New Mexico State University Department of Mathematical Sciences and the NMSU College of Extended Learning recently teamed up on a successful proposal to the U.S. Department of Education to make a difference at both the high school and university levels.

Now with a $600,000 grant in hand from the federal Minority Science and Engineering Improvement Program, they are developing summer institutes for high school students and teachers, with an eye toward creating introductory Web-based courses that combine mathematics and science in meaningful applications. High school students and middle and high school teachers are being recruited now for two institutes that will be offered this summer.

The grant also will enable NSMU faculty to develop hybrid math/engineering and math/science courses for NMSU freshmen and to offer supplemental instruction in the university's Calculus I and Calculus II courses to improve student learning and success rates. Calculus tends to be either a gateway or a stumbling block for students aspiring to careers in science and technology fields, said mathematics professors David Finston and Caroline Sweezy.

"Ultimately the goal is to get more minority students into STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields," Finston said. "We saw several obstacles, not just with minority students but with all students. Many of them never see mathematics in the context of a scientific career."

They also don't see math as a viable career option, Sweezy added, and they don't transfer the math they learn to other applications.

Two institutes for high school students will be offered this summer - one focusing on environmental engineering, tentatively scheduled for June 4-28, and the other with an emphasis on chemistry, tentatively scheduled for July 9-Aug. 2.

Each institute will accept 15 high school students who have completed high school math courses through Algebra II. Each student will receive an Apple iPod. Three middle or high school teachers will be recruited for each institute. These faculty members will receive stipends, which can be applied to three graduate-level credits if desired.

One of the three teachers will be recruited from outside the Las Cruces area, and that faculty member will be provided with room and board as well as a stipend.

Environmental engineering professor Nirmala Khandan and mathematics professor Ernie Barany will team-teach the first institute. Sweezy and chemistry professor David Smith will team up for the second.

The 2008 summer institutes will present math in the context of physics and biology.

Three NMSU graduate students also will participate in each institute and later will work with the faculty members to develop Web-based courses that students can take for dual high school and college credit.

The Web-based courses will provide rural New Mexico students mathematics and science enrichment that would otherwise be unavailable to them, said Kitty Berver of the College of Extended Learning, who is coordinating the distance education aspects of the program.

The institutes and Web courses are aimed at recruiting more high school students into STEM disciplines. The other aspects of the project are meant to help students over the hurdles of university-level mathematics - and help them connect this knowledge with their major field of study.

By adding a fourth hour to the previously three-credit-hour Calculus I and II courses, students and instructors will be encouraged to explore the science and engineering applications of calculus, Sweezy said. The approach is being piloted this semester in nine sections of Calculus II.

Anyone interested in more information about the summer institutes can contact Finston at (505) 646-2637 or dfinston@nmsu.edu, or Sweezy at (505) 646-2129 or csweezy@nmsu.edu.