Duke, UNC graduate students win challenge, advance STEM studies

Jun. 22, 2013 @ 07:29 PM

When UNC graduate student Clare Fieseler visited Midway Atoll in the Pacific and learned about its management and conservation, or when UNC graduate student Justin Ridge researched oyster reefs along the North Carolina coast, they didn’t turn to PowerPoints, graphs or charts to explain their findings.

Instead, they created documentaries that won national acclaim and film awards, showing that pairing science and storytelling works.

It’s an idea like this that raised the eyebrows of the National Science Foundation, which is looking for innovative ways to improve graduate education in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. NSF created the Innovation in Graduate Education Challenge this year to help students prepare themselves for real-world jobs in the lab or out in the field.

Fieseler and Ridge, both PhD students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, won second place in the nation for their “Scientists with Stories Project.” Their initiative groups UNC and Duke University students together to learn how to share their research findings with the community through audio, photography and video.

Duke University graduate David McDonald was one of the third-place winners. His area of study is genetics, and his NSF challenge submission detailed a course lineup that would teach graduate students career-oriented skills such as lab management, university and department governance, and community outreach.

Kate Stoll, who works within the NSF’s division of graduate education, developed the idea for the Innovation in Graduate Education Challenge, which received more than 500 entries in its first year. She said this is NSF’s “year of dialogue” with graduate students, as they explore innovative ideas to move forward graduate education and share research advances in new, exciting ways.

Stoll is a STEM graduate herself – She holds a PhD in biochemistry, and she was involved in an active graduate student organization at the University of Washington in Seattle. There, she discovered the importance of brainstorming with other students. Many of the challenge submissions this year focused on career development and science communications, or finding new ways to disseminate research information to media and policymakers.

“I really saw the power of what graduate students can do if you get them together and get them thinking about bigger issues,” Stoll said.

And for North Carolina, keeping students interested in STEM subjects isn’t just important on the K-12 education level, said Sam Houston, president and CEO of the N.C. Science, Mathematics and Technology Education Center. College-level STEM departments need to prepare their students to search and compete for great job opportunities.

“The reality is that you can be a very bright student and not have an understanding of how to run a lab or how to communicate what you know and understand so other people can appreciate it,” Houston said. “I think sometimes we don’t understand that being successful in school doesn’t always translate to being successful after you get out of school.”

The SMT Education Center projects that by 2018, there will be about 1.4 million job vacancies in the state due to new job creation or retirements. By the same year, the number of STEM jobs available is projected to increase by at least 17 percent. Occupational fields that are expected to experience the most growth are medical and allied health as well as computer technology, according to the report.

The percentage of STEM-related degrees granted by all of North Carolina’s 4-year colleges and universities is 29 percent of all master’s degrees, 45 percent of all professional doctorates and 58 percent of all academic doctorates, according to the report.

Houston said that finding new, innovative ways to share STEM research findings and learning more about science communications would put graduate students on a more solid path to good careers.

“We probably don’t do enough in North Carolina and maybe even in the country to make sure broad audiences understand the work that young people do and the value that it has to everyday life,” Houston said.

McDonald, 27, who won a third-place spot in the Innovation in Graduate Education Challenge for his course curriculum idea, said he learned how to design student courses while at Duke. He completed a certificate in college teaching and participated in a “Preparing Future Faculty” program, in which he observed the roles of faculty in schools across North Carolina.

“Various groups offer single workshops on many career-related topics or skills, but none have the chance to work with students over a longer period of time,” McDonald said in an email. “I felt that giving graduate students direct exposure to topics related to their careers (e.g. working in academia vs. industry) would be helpful.

“Graduate education is not only about research, it is about developing into a multi-talented science professional,” he said.

UNC student Justin Ridge, who won second place along with Fieseler for their “Scientists with Stories Project,” said the film he worked on with other students about North Carolina’s oyster reefs won best student film at the Beneath the Waves Film Festival this year in Georgia.

Storytelling helps “build scientists that are better at communicating what they’re doing to the public,” Ridge said. “The whole ‘ivory tower’ of science, (we’re) trying to get out of that and making it accessible for everyone.”

Fieseler, the 29-year-old founder of the “Scientists with Stories Project,” said the idea of partnering storytelling with scientific research is becoming more common. She’s hoping to grow their group and find more sustainable funders in the upcoming year, and she recently attended ComSciCon13 in Cambridge, Mass., which was organized by Harvard graduate students for graduate students to learn how to effectively communicate their research.

She said storytelling venues can range from playwriting to science fiction. The video she created about plastics in the ocean during her Midway Atoll trip garnered more audience response than facts and figures. And the “Scientists with Stories Project” students are now spending 6 months working on videos about maritime history preservation for the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.

“People respond to the stories, the images and sounds, because they aren’t scientists,” Fieseler said. “They can’t relate to numbers. They can relate to stories.”