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NMSU astronomy grant helps students complete lab work from a distance

For students who wish to venture to the stars but have outside commitments that prevent them from attending necessary science laboratories to fulfill their requirements, a new grant awarded to New Mexico State University could help them accomplish their goals without compromising other responsibilities.

Nicole Vogt, a New Mexico State University associate professor of astronomy, reviews test questions on a database for students that will enhance their classroom and laboratory experiences. (NMSU photo by Audry Olmsted)

Nicole Vogt, an associate professor in the Department of Astronomy, has received a Minority University Research and Education Programs grant through NASA, which is enabling her to develop an online database of astronomical questions, quizzes and laboratory sessions that will allow students to complete their science-based coursework from anyplace with an internet connection.

"That's a big deal for many students who don't have many opportunities to take laboratory science courses," Vogt said. "And, it's really hard to do a laboratory course from a distance. If they cannot manage to come to campus at a critical time in their education, they may not get a degree. It would be a shame for statewide requirements to pose a barrier to people getting degrees rather than being a means for motivating them to learn more about science."

With this grant, Vogt hopes to provide an avenue for students to review basic math and science concepts at their own pace, as well as help those who have work and family commitments to fulfill their graduation requirements for a college degree. Vogt also hopes to garner a greater interest among students in pursuing Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics - or STEM - careers. The database resource is geared toward students and educators who are not seeking a degree in astronomy but wish to complete their mandatory science requirements for another degree.

Vogt said they are creating a database with about 8,000 questions to help students understand the material they are studying. There is also a series of laboratory exercises for students to complete. She said the department is trying to recreate a peer-group experience for the labs by filming short tutorials to guide students through their work.

Students will be able to opt for hints on any particular material they need assistance on and can review different concepts and lecture notes as many times as they need to before taking quizzes or tests online. When the students finish, the program immediately shows them how they scored on the quizzes and tests.

One of their motivations for applying for this competitive grant, Vogt said, is that NMSU has doubled its laboratory requirements from three credits to six credits. In the eight years she has been teaching at NMSU, she has seen how difficult it is for students who do not live in Las Cruces to complete their graduation requirements and to fit different courses into hectic schedules.

Now, through the course of a semester, in a series of 26 lectures and eight laboratory exercises, students will be able to learn everything required - from why the Earth has different seasons to what lies beyond our solar system - at times that are convenient for them and from any location. The online component complements in-class work as well.

Vogt said students are now doing pilot work on the program to make sure everything is working properly before trying it out in the field.

Eventually, the department would like to add a live chat component to the program so students can interact with their peers as well as professors.

Even though there are a few classes in the state that offer this long-distance study option, this is a first for astronomy.

NMSU is one of five institutions to receive funding for Minority University Research and Education Programs grants. A total of $3.3 million will be shared among the institutions over three years. Other institutions that received MUREP funding are North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University; Crownpoint Institute of Technology; Sistema Universitario Ana G. Mendez, Inc.; and Florida A&M University.

"The five programs share a common goal to increase the participation of historically underserved, underrepresented communities in the sciences and to encourage the next generation to explore the rich culture of science available today," Vogt said.

The mission of MUREP Small Programs is to seek out higher education opportunities through the funding of STEM projects at minority serving institutions through NASA.

Anyone with questions about the program can contact Vogt at (575) 646-6522 or nicole@nmsu.edu.