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SySTEMic Success

By any measuring stick, the 2017-18 academic year was a smashing success for Angelo State’s programs in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

STEM has become an important buzzword in higher education. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for graduates ready for careers in STEM fields remains high and will for the foreseeable future. And it’s no coincidence that ASU continues to build and improve our STEM programs to help meet that need.

“STEM is one of the big drivers of the economy in the state and the country,” said Dr. Paul Swets, dean of ASU’s College of Science and Engineering. “So for ASU to produce the qualified, competent and excited STEM students that we do, that’s a really big deal. We are producing graduates who, whether they go to work or to graduate school, are ready to contribute.”

Our official STEM departments within the College of Science and Engineering include:

  • Agriculture
  • Biology
  • Chemistry and Biochemistry
  • Computer Science
  • David L. Hirschfeld Department of Engineering
  • Mathematics
  • Physics and Geosciences

According to official institutional data, just over 1,550 STEM majors made up 26.6 percent of ASU’s undergraduate population in 2017-18, up from 23.8 percent the previous year – and about 2,000 STEM majors are projected for enrollment in 2018-19.

“It’s a big bragging point for ASU,” Swets said.

“Our biology program that sends so many students to medical school; our biochemistry program that sends students to pharmacy school; our agriculture program that sends so many students into the industry; our math teaching programs; all our departments – we’re really strong.”

But STEM curriculum is not reserved just for that college. In our Archer College of Health and Human Services, there were more than 1,100 nursing, kinesiology/exercise science, and health science professions majors in 2017-18. We’ll call them our “crossover” STEM majors.

“The curriculum in those programs is heavily science-based,” said Dr. Leslie Mayrand, Archer College dean. “They aren’t officially designated STEM programs, but they certainly use the sciences as the base for their curriculum.”

“It benefits our programs for ASU to have quality STEM programs,” she added. “As long as we have strong STEM programs, we’ll have strong nursing and health science professions programs.”

Cumulatively, STEM and “crossover” STEM majors made up over 45 percent of ASU’s undergraduate population in 2017-18, and that number could jump as high as 50 percent this year.

But success is not just about enrolling more students. It’s about preparing them to start successful careers or advance to graduate school as soon as they get their ASU diploma. That’s another area where our STEM programs have had a banner year.

Facilities and Equipment

For a long time, one of ASU’s main points of pride has been our state-of-the-art facilities. In the College of Science and Engineering, they include:

  • Angelo State Natural History Collections
  • ASU Ranch (MIR Center)
  • Entertainment Computing Lab
  • Hunter Strain Engineering Lab
  • ASU Planetarium
  • Dedicated chemistry, physics and geosciences labs

And that doesn’t count all the high-tech equipment in those facilities that ranges from lasers, spectrometers and engineering equipment to welding gear, computer software and a Sci-Dome HD projection system, to name a few. Now, you can add ASU’s first scanning electron microscope (SEM) that was donated by Hitachi in March and installed in the Vincent Building.

The Hitachi S-300N microscope can magnify objects up to 200,000 times. It also has tremendous depth of field compared to traditional microscopes, providing an almost 3-D image for researchers to analyze – and it can look past the surface of an object, telling researchers information about its composition.

“At many larger schools,” Swets said, “undergrads sit and watch lab demonstrations by graduate students. Here at ASU, our students actually get their hands on the expensive equipment. Having modern facilities and equipment really enhances the students’ lab and field experiences. You can also recruit top faculty and keep them if they have the facilities and equipment they need to do their jobs.”

Just across the parking lot, there are also all kinds of new technology for our “crossover” STEM majors in the Health and Human Services Building. The Hi-Fidelity Simulation Lab and nursing skills labs with their interactive mannequins have been dramatically expanded and updated. But perhaps the most popular new addition is the 48-station computer lab equipped with BodyViz software that was funded by the San Angelo Health Foundation.

“It’s a virtual program,” Mayrand said, “that utilizes the CT scans and MRIs of actual patients. You can go in and actually peel back the layers of a scan and turn it to get a true sense of the elements. The students just love it. There is nothing like seeing the three-dimensional images that you can take apart. You can’t do that with a flat picture.”

“The space, facilities and equipment we have now will definitely allow us to expand existing programs,” she added, “and we already have plans to add new programs in the near future.”

Student Research

Although ASU is generally classified as a teaching school, research still plays a huge role in undergraduate studies.

“A big component of ASU being a teaching school,” Swets said, “is helping our students to do the research that lets them go to the next level, whether that’s graduate school, professional school or their careers. Being a good teaching school is more than just delivering a great lecture in the classroom. It’s getting your students into the field, into the lab, into hands-on experiences – and then mentoring the process.”

And while just about every academic department on campus has undergraduate students involved in research, the STEM departments are easily the most visible, partly because their students often present their projects at regional and national conferences. During 2017-18, biology students won research presentation awards at the annual meeting of the Texas Society of Mammalogists and the national meeting of the Tri-Beta national biology honor society.

Our students get practical experience and have a product at the end to show for it. Students at a lot of other schools don’t have that opportunity.

Dr. Paul Swets

Meanwhile, student researchers involved in an ongoing Range Reclamation Project played a major role in our Department of Agriculture and Department of Physics and Geosciences winning the Bruno Hanson/Midland College Environmental Excellence Award at the annual Executive Oil Conference.

Also, of the 11 ASU Honors Program students who were selected to present their research at the annual National Collegiate Honors Council Conference, eight were either STEM or “crossover” STEM majors.

“Conducting research makes our students stand out in a lot of ways that other schools can’t claim,” Swets said. “Our students get practical experience and have a product at the end to show for it. Students at a lot of other schools don’t have that opportunity.”

Plus, while it may not officially count as research, ASU students have maintained a 100 percent passing rate for 21 straight years on the Texas Examination of Educator Standards (TExES) teacher certification test for secondary mathematics. The semester before taking the exam, each student was required to pass a capstone course that encompasses all four years of their mathematics coursework.

Sure sounds like research.

Community Outreach

Community outreach and engagement is a university-wide initiative, and we’re good at it. The Princeton Review has even ranked ASU No. 17 in the entire U.S. in the category, “Town-Gown Relations are Great.”

Virtually all ASU departments and offices are involved in outreach efforts, but none more so than our STEM programs. Annual activities include:

  • Angelo State Natural History Collections Open House
  • Computer Science Summer Code Camp
  • Art & Science Family Day at the San Angelo Museum of Fine Arts
  • Public Planetarium shows and tours
  • Regional 4-H and FFA Judging Contest
  • Engineers Week at ASU
  • Girl Scouts STEM Conference
  • Physics Road Tour
  • WTMA Distinguished Lectureship in Science Honoring Dr. Roy E. Moon

All of these activities give community members the opportunity to engage with our STEM faculty, staff and students – and the community has shown its appreciation, this year in particular.

In January, public donors ponied up more than $15,000 to help the Biology Department reach its long-term fundraising goal of $100,000 to fund the Terry C. Maxwell Endowment in Natural History. The endowment will now generate funds to support activities associated with the Angelo State Natural History Collections, including student and faculty research projects.

Then in June, local company TimeClock Plus stepped up to sponsor the annual Summer Code Camp, which had previously been funded solely by registration fees. After two straight years of record attendance by local junior high and high school students, the camp can continue to grow without raising fees.

But it’s not all about town-gown relations. Outreach and engagement also doubles as recruitment.

“Outreach is important for us because STEM subjects are hard and you don’t get students into STEM by accident,” Swets said. “You have to reach out to kids and promote STEM and get them excited about it. So outreach is extremely important for the departments in our college.”

Looking Ahead

While topping the accomplishments of the 2017-18 academic year may seem a daunting task, the future is looking pretty bright.

As previously mentioned, significant enrollment growth is projected for our STEM programs, with a rising star being the “crossover” Department of Health Science Professions that already has over 300 majors.

“We cover the health care delivery system, ethics, policy-making and those types of things,” Mayrand said. “So our graduates will be highly competitive for getting into graduate programs. Public health is also an area of high demand that will open up for our graduates. So far we’ve been very successful. Our enrollment has gone through the roof in just a year.”

ASU also received a five-year, $2.75 million grant last year from the U.S. Department of Education to support the implementation of a proposed new mechanical engineering program, and the Biology Department is putting the finishing touches on its new greenhouse. So it looks like STEM business as usual as we head into 2018-19.

“Our individual programs may not be as large as some others on campus,” Swets said. “But in terms of student accomplishment, students advancing to graduate school, students presenting research at conferences, internal and external faculty awards, grant funding and new equipment, the College of Science and Engineering and our STEM programs are very strong right now. I’m very pleased with what we’re doing.”

  • Tom Nurre

    Tom Nurre

    Tom Nurre is a news and information specialist at Angelo State University. 
    Email Tom at tom.nurre@angelo.edu.