My Scary, Tepid, Exhilarating, and Mastery Journey to Conquering STEM

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Written by: Jessica Taatjes, CSU STEM VISTA 2014-2015

I was a student scared of tackling the hurdles of STEM; my journey from elementary school to college was full of academic hurdles. Ever since third grade, mathematics always gave me a tough time. In high school, I was always floating through STEM classes without thoroughly understanding the topics.  This approach backfired my senior year and required a tremendous amount of tutoring to pass and graduate with my fellow classmates. Following this experience, I became motivated to not let my academic struggles interfere with a college degree. I enrolled in community college and took the minimum amount of STEM classes required to graduate. Shortly after beginning college, I realized I had to go far beyond the minimum to pursue a career in science, my heart sank. I felt as if this would be a replay of my elementary and high school struggles, but in spite of this feeling, I was determined to reach my goals and embarked on a journey of treacherously high hurdles.

To my surprise, my journey would be full of help through inspiring professors. My community college Oceanography professor gave me the chance to get a hands-on learning experience, also known as a High-Impact Practice (HIP) in related fieldwork which inspired me to jump the hurdles of STEM.  I was then accepted to Humboldt State University and wanted to go back to the basics to thoroughly understand the material and succeed. My first class at HSU was pre-calculus and proved to be different from any other math class I had taken. My professor inspired me to succeed so I kicked it into high gear, let go of the memories of my previous struggles and sought tutoring and available resources. After passing with a complete understanding, I felt empowered and went on to tackle limits, differentials, and integrals, taking me all the way through Calculus Three. Being a recent graduate from Humboldt State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Oceanography, I relate to the students that struggle and drop out of STEM related majors because of the difficulty, lack of inspiration and resources. If it weren’t for HIPs in community college and Humboldt State, joining study groups, and having inspiring professors, I would not have found the fun in STEM. I thoroughly enjoyed being challenged with math problems once I found resources, and I hope the work I am doing as a CSU STEM VISTA member will inspire and encourage students to tap into the resources available for their success in STEM.

Given my personal experiences in STEM, I was immediately intrigued about my CSU STEM VISTA position and the opportunity to advocate for high impact practices that would help students stay within STEM programs. I was placed with the CSU’s Council on Ocean Affairs, Science & Technology (COAST) to increase graduation rates and retention within marine science programs across the California State Universities. I was ecstatic, not only because I had a secured a position upon graduation, but also because it was with COAST. In fact, I was very familiar with COAST while at Humboldt State since I had previously applied for a travel award to present my undergraduate research at the Ocean Sciences Conference in Honolulu, HI. This opportunity also meant I could work in a field that was close to my major, networking among scientists in my field and advocating for marine science research.

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Taking on this position as a CSU STEM VISTA was a lot like running full speed toward another set of hurdles, but this time I was blindfolded. In other words, this is the first year for a program like this, so instead of following in footsteps, we are paving our own paths. Given time, the tremendous support of the other CSU STEM VISTA members and my supervisors, as well as access to national resources, I was able to navigate those hurdles, even though I was still flying blind.

With that in mind, my plan of attack was to encourage students from all backgrounds that are weary to find the fun in STEM and succeed in marine science, particularly with a HIP. In fact, I am learning this year that HIPs are like walking a fine line, teeter tottering on a fun learning experience and a heavy workload with suffering grades. A HIP could range from an internship, undergraduate research, seminar or any learning outside of the classroom that fully engages the student. The experience should be rigorous and challenging but cannot be too strenuous, or else grades and participation can diminish. With that said, a HIP should be meaningful, related to the studies, and an enriching educational experience, but what does that entail?

Jessica_San Diego2Well, this is where I come into the picture, researching and advocating for existing and potential internships and undergraduate research opportunities within marine science. This includes meeting with students at selected CSU campuses from the allotment of 23 throughout California to give student presentations. The purpose of these presentations is to inform students from all backgrounds on how they can apply and be eligible for COAST internships and opportunities. Hopefully with my help, students can change their definition of STEM one HIP at a time, or in my case one research question or presentation at a time.

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