Manhattan College Cultivating Next Generation of Science, Technology, Engineering, Math Students and Educators

A new center for educators backed by the National Science Foundation, combined with Manhattan’s tried and true programs for high school students, keep the College at the forefront of STEM education.

On a Thursday morning in July, Manhattan College’s engineering labs looked more like the breakfast rush at Riverdale Diner as students grabbed eggs out of cartons and squeezed globs of ketchup and maple syrup onto wax paper.

The eggs, it turns out, weren’t fried up, but instead cushioned with paper and tape and tossed out a window in a classic physics experiment — part of Aerospace Design taught by Zahra Shahbazi, Ph.D., assistant professor of mechanical engineering.

Likewise, students in professor Patrick Abulencia’s chemical engineering lab tested the viscosity of kitchen condiments by “racing” them down sheets of wax paper.

These hands-on classes are but two of many within Manhattan’s High School Engineering Awareness program, geared toward minority students and women, and celebrating its 32nd year this summer.

“I think in high school, students don’t yet have an idea of what engineering is,” says Abulencia, Ph.D., associate professor of chemical engineering. “Here, they get a real flavor of it, and they get exposed to what engineers actually do. It’s beneficial to have programs like this.”

Kitchen condiments aside, Manhattan College has indeed discovered a recipe for success. According to the College’s spring 2014 board report, applications to the School of Engineering are up 13 percent since last year, and 14 percent in the School of Science. There was also a 12 percent increase in the number of students seeking a mathematics major.

But building parachutes for eggs is meaningless without a study of the engineering behind it. While students seem to be pursuing Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), the same can’t be said for educators.

To help fix this dearth, the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently granted Manhattan College’s Schools of Engineering and Education and Health nearly $300,000 to create an Engineering Scholars Training and Retention (STAR) Center on campus. Its purpose will be to investigate ways to promote and support STEM education for students and professionals who wish to teach grades 6-12, with a focus on engineering.

In addition to providing more scholarships and professional development opportunities for STEM educators, the grant aims to support a new minor in education for students studying engineering, a certificate in engineering education for math and science education majors, and a post-baccalaureate certificate in engineering education for engineering students.

“I believe our high school students deserve more in-depth teaching in engineering and our contribution is through training better engineering educators,” says Shahbazi, co-principal investigator of the grant.

By developing and disseminating new courses, lesson plans and projects, Manhattan’s Engineering STAR Center will ideally serve as a model at local, regional and national levels.

Outreach and Teach

A second NSF grant, which awarded Rostislav Konoplich, Ph.D., professor of physics, and his students more than $200,000 to conduct research on the Higgs boson particle, also includes funding for an outreach program to high school students. A two-part physics lab will run in the fall and spring for the next three years at the College.

This summer, a similar outreach program in electronics was offered for the first time under the guidance of Veronique Lankar, Ph.D., visiting associate professor of physics, and taught by physics major Dylan Gray ’15.

A dozen students from area high schools including Bronx Science and NEST+m (New Explorations into Science, Technology and Math) conducted simple experiments to learn the basics of motors, circuits, resistors, breadboards and more.

“My favorite part has been learning more about electricity and currents,” says Laura Cerrato, a junior at Saunders Trades and Technical High School.

“Having something work is an accomplishment,” adds NEST+m junior Andriy Repik, as the pair pursued a circuit project.

The class was also a learning experience for Gray, one of Konoplich’s research students, who was eager to add STEM education to his résumé by helping edit and test the electronics course manual with Lankar before taking on the teaching role this July.

“There’s a quote, ‘You don’t learn physics till you teach it,’” adds Gray, noting that the experiments have been an exercise in patience, trial and error. “I think it is important for students to be exposed to STEM-related material early on because it may spark an interest and motivate them to pursue further education. A degree in a science discipline prepares young adults for a large range of career options.”

The College Decision

Across campus in the environmental labs, it is evident that these programs are not only exposing young students to dissolve concentrations but also college decisions.

“I started thinking about engineering in seventh or eighth grade,” says TaJuane Burnes, a senior at Mount Saint Michael Academy. “I liked math and science and thought maybe I’d go into accounting, but as an engineer, I found out you get to work on a lot of different projects. And this program worked out for me because I’m interested in Manhattan College.”

Before class ended, Abulencia stood surrounded by an attentive group of students who asked him about his background in engineering. He made sure to hand out business cards and asked them to keep in touch, knowing that the decision to pursue STEM can be a challenging decision, but a rewarding one.

“I encourage you to talk to the different presenters and explore the different [parts of] engineering this week,” Abulencia says. “Try to find something that makes you happy. Find your passion and that’s what you should chase. The rest will figure itself out.”

By Julie Benns