Building Up a Head of STE(a)M

blog postWritten by Noya Kansky, CSU STEM VISTA 2014-2015

There were only twenty people in the room, but I saw millions of eyes and ears waiting to be impressed by my pitch for undergraduate research experiences. I guess the fact that I was giving a presentation in a room endearingly named the “Dead Head” Room added to that feeling. I mean, impressing the intelligent STEM students of Cal Poly was already going to be a feat – but speaking in front of our local taxidermy museum? The pressure was hanging over my head

For the past three-and-a-half months, I have invested time and effort into composing a literature review of best practices of undergraduate research programs, with specific respect to programs that support underrepresented students. An undergraduate research experience (URE) is a learning tool used by educators to involve students in research with the intent of providing a different vantage point to look at scientific and technological concepts and inquiries. I’ve read books and academic journals, grant proposals, I’ve been honored with meeting esteemed faculty and administrators at Cal Poly SLO, and I’ve had the great opportunity of discussing undergraduate research with my amazing supervisors –  the backbone of the Cal Poly SLO LSAMP Program (big shout out to Dr. Jane Lehr and Tiffany Kwapnoski!). All of this research is contributing to my larger goal of increasing the participation of underrepresented students in STEM in undergraduate research experiences.

NoyaBut, back to the story behind the suspenseful intro! The truth of the matter was that this event wasn’t even about me. Sitting before the audience of humans and stoic buffalo heads, was a panel of eight students from traditionally underrepresented populations in the STEM fields – all of whom had successfully completed undergraduate research experiences. The plan was that the panel discussion would last an hour, and I would follow-up with our audience by presenting an hour-long info session about undergraduate research experiences – the benefits, the application process, do’s and don’ts, etc.

Through my research, I’ve gained a lot of important information about UREs, but nothing rivals in comparison to this student panel that I speak of. It started off with a bang. Each student discussed their research experience with confidence and ease. Not only that, but they were able to code-switch easily between presenting for a lay person (like myself) and those already familiar with the subject matter. Each student had a different research experience and they presented their experiences uniquely. Although this was the first time for some of the students to participate in a panel, it seemed as if they had done this before. The diversity of students was prolific and the discussion proved to be comprehensive. Their discussion alone would have convinced me to apply for undergraduate research experiences. I felt like I didn’t even need to go through the informational material!

Of course through this experience, I learned about the diversity and variety of research experiences and how to find/apply for them, but I also saw the manifest gains in students that partake in these experiences. The panelists were no longer “just students,” they had clearly adopted the identities of scientists and engineers. After the panel ended, I was excited to know that there was a new group of people that I could learn a lot from.

Hearing the panel discussion also reaffirmed that my efforts were going somewhere. Seeing that undergraduate research experiences have such a profound effect makes me psyched to move a head with my VISTA project. With a new stock of idioms involving heads and jokes about taxidermy, I feel stuffed with joy to know that the Cal Poly LSAMP program is a head of the game!




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