The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded the scientific brains of PCC with an $850,000 grant that will allow them to work in some of the most advanced labs in the area in order to experience the life of a scientist firsthand.

Starting next summer a selected group of science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) students will take part of the Early Career Undergraduate Research Experience (eCURe) and will spend six weeks doing working paid research positions in places such as Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cal Poly Pomona and Huntington Medical Research Institutes.

“This way students can actually take the time to work full time in one of these research institute instead of trying to go to work and class, and everything else,” said biology assistant professor Katie Rodriguez, who wrote the grant with instructor Veronica Jaramillo.

For the Dean of the Natural Science Division, David Douglass, this kind of opportunity is not an isolated effort to give something extra to the students.

“It’s part of a bigger idea,” said Douglass, the idea being to keep students studying science. “We lose a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, or Mathematics) major every fifteen minutes in this country.”

He believes the more that students are involved in doing hands-on science, something traditionally offered solely to more advanced students, the higher the probability that they will persist in science.

“It’s a very difficult road to get a degree in science,” said Douglass. “The more we can do to keep them excited, the better chances we have of students completing, especially our underrepresented minority students. That’s one of the groups we are really trying to capture with these kind of projects.”

According to Douglass, many students grow up thinking that science is just about finding the right answer and putting in it in a little box. Instead, students must experience “authentic research” which, according to him, means giving them problems that “we don’t have answers to, or we only have ambiguous answers to, because that’s the exciting part of science.”

During his years of teaching at PCC, Douglass learned that he and each STEM faculty member have had some early experience that inspired them to pursue their scientific careers.

For him, it was when he was a student at PCC. He started out as a psychology major, but changed his mind after his first class. He took several geology classes and got a summer job at a geophysical company that helped shape his path.

“It really made a difference because I could see what science was about and I could see the lifestyle of a scientist,” Douglass said. “That experience is probably what inspired me to go back to school and stick with it.”

The money from the grant will be spent trying to replicate such formative experiences for PCC students. The grant also comes with an industry advisory board of lead researchers from STEM fields, who will be working with PCC faculty to become familiar with what is going on in the industry.

“I haven’t done research since I got out of graduate school,” said Rodriguez. “My knowledge is a little bit old and this is a great opportunity also for the faculty to be able to go and learn about what is happening in our field now, and look what we can put into the classroom from some of that.”

Most of the money will go back to the students, supporting them during their internships starting this summer, and the rest of the money will be spent developing a curriculum for a research method course, the first of which will be offered at PCC in the spring.

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