UNM professors create education pipeline to help students excel in STEM careers

For Angela Wandinger-Ness, PhD, giving back to society and investing in the future are the same thing. "That was the hook," she says. "If you're going to be in academics, you're there to do research and teaching and education." So Wandinger-Ness combined her passion for science with her passion for education. She and several colleagues created an education pipeline that helps students excel in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers. She plans to use a National Cancer Institute Continuing Umbrella of Research Experience grant to include underrepresented minority high school students in that education pipeline.

"Faculty in my generation were not trained to be educators or teachers," says Wandinger-Ness. "We were trained in research. So I was particularly excited [to come to UNM] because this medical school was renowned for its educational innovation in medical school teaching." Wandinger-Ness completed the year-long University of New Mexico Medical Education Scholars Program shortly after she arrived at UNM in 1998. The program introduced her to teaching methods that she could not only apply but also teach to others.

"When you're in a lab," Wandinger-Ness says, "somebody shows you how to use the balance. Well, someone has to show you that a learning objective is about the student and not about the teacher. It just has to be made transparent." Wandinger-Ness began working with Sherry Rogers, PhD, to restructure graduate courses to be more student-focused. They then decided to teach these teaching skills to graduate students. "Our view is that teaching, education and research are integrated, synergistic activities," says Wandinger-Ness. "The excitement of research is what drives the excitement for education and vice versa."

Wandinger-Ness and Rogers created the Academic Science Education and Research Training Program at UNM for graduate students. ASERT fellows conduct research at UNM; about half work in cancer research. The fellows also teach at one of three partner institutions: Central New Mexico Community College, New Mexico State University or Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute. Faculty at CNM, NMSU or SIPI mentor the fellows in how to reach and convey a message to a diverse audience. They also teach the fellows to structure hands-on lessons for their students. The National Institute of General Medical Sciences has awarded the ASERT program funding from its Institutional Research and Academic Career Development Awards program. UNM hosted the annual IRACDA conference in 2014.

Building from the success of ASERT, Wandinger-Ness worked with other faculty at UNM and NMSU to launch an undergraduate program. The program starts with an intensive summer internship and continues through two years. It also requires the students to share their research with their community. "In cancer research, one of the significant hurdles we have is working with the community," says Wandinger-Ness. "So we felt that this could be a productive partnership, not just a research program."

Wandinger-Ness hopes to expand the undergraduate program to Native American high school students later this year using her new NCI CURE grant. "We have a terrific network of program directors for students at different levels," she says. "So we really are building pipelines from undergraduate, graduate, postdoctoral through junior faculty, using these various programs." Adding a high school segment is the next logical step.

Like the ASERT program, Wandinger-Ness will focus the high school program on creating a strong link between community and cancer research. The high school students will play a key role in that link. They, too, will bring their own cancer-related questions to their research at UNM Cancer Center laboratories. And, they will share their learning with their community through art. "Science is creative," says Wandinger-Ness. "So, they take what they're doing in a scientific mind and communicate it in a way that can be understood by a community." The students will be free to choose their own creative medium, such as poetry, painting, writing, and song, to convey what they learn about cancer.

"Engaging the high school level involves a number of restrictions at the university level due to lab safety risks," says Wandinger-Ness. Still, Wandinger-Ness feels that the effort is worth it. "Even if the students don't become scientists, they can become literate about science. Science affects everything and you have to be a literate citizen in order to make good decisions."


The UNM Cancer Center


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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