Innovative Experiences Made Possible with Endowed Chairs and Help from the Resource Development Office — Faculty Highlight

mary-beck-groveBy Joy S. Jones

There are a number of studies that indicate a strong relationship between students who have completed a research project and choosing science as a major. When Professor of Geology Mary Beck wanted to teach a summer field course in 2007, where students could complete geology research projects, she applied for an endowed chair and was awarded the Lester N. Mandell Chair in Natural and Physical Sciences.

faculty-insight-news-idThen a graduate student, her participation in a National Science Foundation grant had opened her eyes to a new way of thinking about how to integrate inquiry activities in the classroom. Before this, Mary considered that undergraduate research was something students only did in internships.

mary-beck-students-grove“One of the challenges I faced in having students do geology inquiry in the physical geology class was that the Central Florida region has very little traditional geologic resources nearby. Also, there is no geology program at the University of Central Florida to allow partnering with Valencia. I was interested in inquiry activities that would allow students to collect and process their own data,” Mary said.

Mary used endowed chair funds to pay her travel and lodging costs for a reconnaissance trip to the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area and environs in Virginia. The trip allowed her to learn more about the geology to determine potential student research topics. She also planned to use student enrollment in an additional summer field course as a measure of student interest in geology after having completed the physical geology course for a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.

Her colleague, Bill Stillwell, instructional assistant, senior, in the West Campus Open Physics Lab, had introduced her to digital sensors that pair with hand-held data loggers or computers used in his lab. She began investigating some of things that could be done with the sensors and found several applications for geology and the earth sciences. In 2008, she used the Lockheed Martin Chair in Science to purchase a data-logger and a variety of sensors so that she could explore how students might use this equipment in the classroom for field inquiry exercises or projects.

After completing a field season in Virginia and purchasing and working with the sensors, Mary was ready to put her plan into action.

mary-beck-sensors-270w“By 2011, I was interested in supplying a classroom with digital sensors and data-loggers. I had applied for a NSF grant to purchase a variety of cutting-edge equipment and technology for the physical geology class, but I wasn’t sure if I would receive it. Also, the sensor technology was changing and being adapted for use with iPad. I applied for the Maguire Family Teacher Endowed Chair, because I wanted to increase the odds that I would get money from one of these sources so that I could move ahead with purchasing the sensor equipment and iPads,” Mary said.

mary-beck-ipads-groveHer success in securing the Maguire Chair allowed her to purchase the needed ipads, along with other sensors. And at about the same time, she also received the NSF grant. Additionally, it provided the needed structure to put together a well-thought-out research and assessment plan.

The results were encouraging.

“Students were involved in numerous hands-on activities throughout the semester. My lectures got a lot shorter, with students spending more modeling real-world processes or collecting, processing and interpreting data they collected. Over the course of the semester, my role moved from directing inquiry to guiding it, and the shift in student autonomy was evident,” said Mary.  Another important benefit was that the grant allowed her to try out the summer field course while paying all the students’ costs. A third NSF grant in 2013 furthered her work wherein she sought to involve every student in my earth science (non-lab) classes in a research project.

When Mary initially applied for the grant for her physical geology class, the College’s Resource Development Office did not exist as it does now.

“I ended up doing a lot of things alone and felt fairly frustrated about negotiating the rules of grant writing. My experience with writing my most recent grant proposal and with implementing the grants has been very different, however. I love RDO,” she said.

The RDO has not only provided Mary with support and help as she needs it, but she also meets every semester with members of the team to review the status and progress of the projects, which has made the entire process much more understandable and easier to accomplish.

“The organization and support provided by RDO makes me much more willing to take on challenges that I might not have considered otherwise,” Mary said. “I think that the types of innovations these grants have allowed me to implement can make a huge and positive difference in students’ learning experiences. So far, the feedback that I am getting from students really supports this.”

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