STEM Programs Soar at IND

Who says girls don’t like STEM, shorthand for science, technology, engineering and math? Can’t prove it at the Institute of Notre Dame, where one‐third of students are enrolled in either biomedical sciences or engineering programs.

STEM is an issue of great importance to our nation. Student proficiency and interest in these subjects have been diminishing where the U.S. once excelled, and women’s and minority group participation are severely underrepresented.

After research, IND selected the most highly respected developers of STEM curriculum: Project Lead the Way® (PLTW). PLTW is developed and updated by subject matter experts — teachers, university educators, engineering and biomedical professionals — and field‐tested in classrooms across the country. The programs are aligned with relevant national standards, and they are certified by experts through visits and documentation to ensure that they meet PLTW’s rigorous standards for student learning.

IND began by adding a Biomedical Science Program, which combines science and human health‐related topics. Students role‐play biomedical professionals, thinking through the challenges that face modern medicine and include physiology, genetics, microbiology and public health. They explore the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease, working together to investigate and design innovative solutions to the health challenges of the 21st century, such as fighting cancer with nanotechnology.

“This program is designed for the curious student who has an interest in the sciences, particularly human biology, health and disease,” said science teacher and program chair Margaret Gessler M.D., who began the Biomedical Sciences Program. Under Dr. Gessler’s leadership, the program passed its first certification in spring 2012. The PLTW visiting team said of her: “Dr. Gessler is a natural teacher. She is caring and nurturing and holds her students to high expectations … She is clearly the core of the program and a major draw for the students.”

In 2012, IND proudly added another PLTW program to its curriculum: Pathway to Engineering (PTE). The program adopts a real-world approach, allowing students to learn and apply the design process and acquire strong teamwork and communications skills.

According to PLTW, students use the same industry‐leading 3D‐design software used by Intel, Lockheed Martin and Pixar. Topics explored include aerodynamics, astronautics and space life sciences. Students apply biological and engineering concepts related to biomechanics. They design, test and actually construct circuits and devices such as smart phones and tablets, and work collaboratively on a capstone project.

Perhaps the most welcome and helpful additions to the curriculum are the frequent visits by women STEM scientists and engineers to IND classes. Dr. Gessler and Mr. Rolando Rodriguez, the engineering instructor, know that the shortage of women and minorities in the sciences creates a lack of role models. Both have made it a point to solicit frequent guests to the classroom from local businesses and universities so that students can envision themselves being successful in STEM careers.

On a recent fall afternoon, Mr. Rodriguez invited his sister Berta speak to students and engage in an extensive Q&A. Ms. Rodriguez earned a B.S.E. in civil engineering from Cornell, a M.S. in civil engineering from Stanford and an M.B.A. from UCLA. It was good for the students to engage with a professional woman who came from a humble background, earned multiple degrees, worked and studied around the world, and whose engineering background helped her branch out to the business world.

Later that day, four female engineers from W. R. Grace & Co. visited another engineering class. They conducted two different activities with the students that provided them different perspectives on engineering is used to solve problems and the challenges encountered by computer engineers when programming robotic devices. First‐ and second‐year students competed against one another to develop designs. In addition to school visits, Dr. Gessler and Mr. Rodriguez ensure that their students have ample opportunity to engage in opportunities that further their STEM learning, such as attending programs at Society of American Gastrointestinal and Endoscopic Surgeons’ Mini Med School Boot Camp and Lockheed Martin’s Engineering Challenge.

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