Curl up with this year's Housing Guide for dorm friendly recipes, curfew throwbacks and more, click here

Researchers help STEM students reach for the stars

Many young people are captivated by science fiction films like Transformers, that dramatize technology and outer space. Some Tampa Bay students are learning how to bring their space fantasies to life at Stewart Middle Magnet School with the help of USF researchers.

Frank Muller-Karger, professor of biological oceanography, received approximately $12,000 in September from the NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium and Space Florida for his educational program STEM to the Stars at Tampa’s Stewart Middle Magnet School. The funding will be used to create unique learning experiences for students and allow them to learn from and meet professionals in the science community.

Muller-Karger said the program has three main objectives: teaching about the scientific method, understanding the universe and the earth through space technology, and emphasizing the importance of
science to all students, especially minorities, who are underrepresented in science and mathematics. 

“There a lot of minority
students in these classrooms, and we want show them that it doesn’t matter who you are, you can be successful using science, math, and physics” Muller-Karger said. “You don’t have to be a scientist, but it’s important to understand
science as a way to solve problems.” 

In 2003, Stewart Middle became one of the first 50 NASA Explorer schools in the nation. Its curriculum is focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM for short. 

Not long after the school opened, Muller-Karger was invited to visit and share his studies on changes in the ocean using data collected by
satellites. He presented eager-minded students with images taken from space that illustrated ocean currents, patterns,
temperature, biological
productivity and other variables. These photos were
collected over 30 years. 

Realizing the concept was challenging for young students, he began working with the school’s teachers to develop lesson plans that made the
concepts more tangible.

“It kept evolving,” he said. “We got into teaching about how the world changes – things like climate change and whether it’s true or not.” 

Two classes, Energy and Environment, as well as Flight and Space, are the focus of STEM to the Stars. Students get hands on experience in both classes by testing concepts through classroom projects and assignments. 

In Energy and Environment, students observe sea-level change with Juan Millan, a USF marine science graduate student. 

Millan said he enjoyed helping students test their ideas on what causes sea level to change. 

“Students that weren’t usually very involved became interested,” he said. “They began to think waves effect sea level. What makes waves?”

In addition to these unique learning experiences, students get to interact with notable professionals in STEM fields. Pam McFarland, instructor of Energy and Environment, loves that her students have the opportunity to see their studies as meaningful careers due to the collaboration with special guests. 

For example, on Oct. 8, students attended a Space Art Exhibit created by students, which included a special presentation by Astrophysicist Frank Summers from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. 

“It’s so cool for the kids to meet somebody like Dr. Summers and know a career like his is not out of their reach.” McFarland said. 

Despite the success of the program, Muller-Karger expressed the peril of the public’s decrease in support of science and innovation. Since the mid-60’s, NASA has received less and less of the federal money each year, according to the Office of Management and Budget.  

“The more the government shrinks investment of science education and programs that apply science, I think that the country loses, and eventually loses big time,” he said.

Muller-Karger believes that creating stronger associations between academia, industry, and government could be the answer to declining support for science as a whole.