Outreach from NSF-supported Lehigh-Penn State research institute focuses on long-term impact
September 18, 2015
The well-known adage goes: If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; teach him how to fish, you can feed him for a lifetime.
Himanshu Jain, a professor of materials science at Lehigh University, says this principle has guided the development of outreach activities for the International Materials Institute for New Functionality in Glass (IMI-NFG), which he directs.
Established in 2004 by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a collaborative effort between Lehigh and Penn State University, the institute’s mission is to advance research, education, and collaboration in glass science.
If you’re not familiar with the benefits of glass science, look in your pocket–glass research helped make your cellphone’s glass screen more durable.
This area of materials science finds a way to improve certain attributes of glass, including strength, clarity and flexibility, while diminishing weaknesses. Achieving those goals involves experimentation with different compositions of glass.
But the institute’s leaders did more than invigorate glass science research among their affiliated researchers. The team worked to open the field to a new, broader pool of future scientists and engineers.
Over its first few years in operation, the IMI-NFG offered a number of successful programs–including K-12 outreach, symposiums that combined industry and university resources, short courses, a video library and international conferences–designed to increase interest in materials research, especially glass science. Many of those programs focused on communities underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and employment.
“Such point-in-time events are helpful in developing professional networks or generating interest in a broad sense,” says Jain. “However, real impact in opening young minds to the possibilities in STEM careers comes from sustained engagement over a longer period of time.”
Jain, Carlo G. Pantano of Penn State and Bill Heffner, the associate director of the IMI-NFG at Lehigh, offered opportunities for learning through programs hosted on-campus–the highly successful NSF-funded Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) initiative at both schools.
IMI-NFG also facilitated events for students to meet with peers and professionals in their field on both campuses and across the globe, with a focus on students from schools that serve STEM-underrepresented groups. One of these was Tuskegee University in Alabama, a private, historically black university.
All of those efforts involved connecting students with existing materials science programs and professionals. But, Jain says, the team had a thought: What if they could connect with the institutions students currently attend and create entirely new educational opportunities?
“Why not find a way to bring materials knowledge to the students, instead of bringing them to us or us to them?”
The question eventually led to Tuskegee leveraging its relationship with IMI-NFG to ramp up its own glass science program, formally establishing a new course.
“While we were working with our friends at Tuskegee to design the class, we were also looking to create a generic model for starting new programs of this nature,” Jain says. “Other schools and disciplines interested in broadening access to opportunities can use this partnership model as a blueprint.”
Turning the tables
Looking at other outreach models, Jain realized that many involve bringing minority students into existing science programs by offering scholarships and other financial incentives. But, he said, such resources are limited, and once minority students enter their chosen fields, often they face other challenges.
“Recruiting minority students into existing programs works well on a small scale, but this is a national problem with institutional and cultural realities that scholarships and other forms of support don’t necessarily address,” Jain says.
So Jain decided to work on a new outreach model. He contacted Professor Prakash Sharma, chair of the Department of Physics at Tuskegee, and proposed a short course on glass science and engineering. Jain, Pantano and Heffner would travel to Alabama to lecture and interact with a diverse group of students, helping to fulfill the IMI-NFG mission of broadening the reach of glass/materials science to underrepresented groups.
“Glass science and technology is at the forefront of today’s scientific arena,” says Akshaya Kumar, an associate professor of physics at Tuskegee. “We were excited to be able to provide our students the opportunity to get experience in this very important area and learn about its many applications.”
The IMI-Tuskegee team initially planned to incorporate the lectures into an existing physics course; however, they were pleasantly surprised to learn that the number of students interested in the course far exceeded its limit. Students from many different departments expressed interest in the subject. The original class consisted of 15 undergraduate and graduate students. Lectures were delivered on-site and remotely using video messaging.
The team faced several hurdles: How, exactly, do hands-on experiments occur without a laboratory? Creative solutions, and a willingness on the part of IMI professors to lug heavy equipment in suitcases through airports and hotel lobbies, helped keep the lessons instructive, lively and engaging. Altogether, they presented 17 lectures, including demonstrations and videos.
While Jain, Pantano and Heffner taught the basics of glass science, several Tuskegee professors were on-hand learning with their students while formulating plans to extend the opportunity to future generations of Tuskegee students.
Planting a seed
The IMI-NFG professors were delighted by the Tuskegee community’s enthusiasm, but realized the effort could not rely indefinitely on Lehigh or Penn State personnel.
To solve the problem, the team proposed the creation of a formal course at Tuskegee. Jain and Pantano supplied advice on how to set up the lab space and curriculum. Sharma, Kumar and Chen led the effort to have Tuskegee’s administration formally create and deliver the class: Physics 499-01.
Tuskegee’s faculty and administration approved the class, offering it for the first time in the summer of 2014. Eight students were the first to complete the class taught solely by Tuskegee professors. The class covered glass science basics–all subjects that help researchers understand glass composition.
According to Kumar, the students felt the subject was challenging and stimulating and that the course would help in their careers. He reports that most of them have developed strong interest in exploring graduate and advanced studies.
“One of the very first students ended up presenting her work at the Alabama Academy of Science annual meeting,” Kumar recalls. “She took first prize for her poster on ‘Absorption and Emission Properties of Sm3+ Ions Doped in Glass.'”
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