Parkland accommodating students for boom in STEM fields

EvyJo Compton

Staff Writer

Fields in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics have seen a boom in the amount of jobs needed across the globe, and as its students are next-in-line for those careers Parkland has several opportunities that range from research to poster sessions to help prepare students interested in STEM-related careers.

“Yes, there really is a need, or really a boom, in the STEM careers,” Scott Siechen, head of Parkland’s natural science department, says. “We are becoming a technological society. Because we are becoming more technological, it affects our ability to impact the planet. We have the power to use this technology to benefit humans and the Earth. Though, if used thoughtlessly, we could harm our planet and ourselves. That is why it’s important to not only be thoughtful as a society, but to also have good students going into the STEM fields.”

“We have to have as many of these good students, or thoughtful people, as possible so that they can make new technologies,” Siechen says. “There is so much technology that is affecting us that we don’t even know all of it; solar power, self-driving cars. I mean there are more and more artificial intelligences being used in every area across the board. This means that all technologically and scientifically trained students will be able to affect how the technology grows, and how we will use it.”

This boom in the need for STEM students affects Parkland in many ways. There are several ways that Parkland has branched out to help students in their path to a STEM related career.

“Parkland has a variety of things that fit under the STEM umbrella,” Siechen states. “Though, we typically have more that falls under the science heading than the rest. Parkland has many things that can help students further along in their path. These include PRECS, Natural Science Commons, Poster Session, and the transfer programs.”

PRECS stands for Phenotypic Plasticity Research Experience for Community College Students. In simpler terms, it is an undergraduate research opportunity for community college students- like those from Parkland.

“It is an undergrad research opportunity with the NSF (National Science Foundation),” Catherine Carlson, an associate chemistry professor says. “We received a three-year grant. Really, it’s for three summers. It is a ten week program. The first two weeks are at Parkland, which is a boot camp for research. The next eight weeks are spent in a University of Illinois lab.”

Not only is PRECS an opportunity for community college students to get their feet wet in laboratory work, it is also an eye-opening experience.

“Community college students often don’t have the opportunities four-year students do, especially concerning research, so it’s nice to have a program that recognizes that community college students are just as motivated and excited to be in a lab as four-year students,” says Emma Gray, a Parkland student who’s involved with the program. “I joined because I wanted to know what being in a lab is like…it’s really cool to see how science happens—it always seemed like something that took being crazy smart to do, but now I’m realizing scientists are just normal people who spend long hours staring into microscopes trying to figure stuff out just like the rest of us.”

PRECS has also allowed students to see the bigger picture.

“PRECS, like the many other research opportunities, can help with applying the stuff students learn in class,” Carlson states. “It’s really helpful for students to be able to move forward in STEM-related careers. It’s good to apply a good foundation in class, but sometimes students don’t understand how to apply what we’ve learned in class to real life. Research opportunities like PRECS really helps give you the bigger picture.”

“PRECS is a big opportunity for me,” Staci Hammer, a biochemistry major, states. “I wanted to do an internship in a lab this summer to get experience working in this environment, and that’s why I applied for multiple research experiences for undergrads…Not only to see if this is what I want to do as a career, but also get exposed to the many kinds of science out there. I’ve been itching to do more lab work than the basic experiments you do in class-I wanted to work on something meaningful.”

A lot of the time, students are working on their experiment, but there are other things they must cover while working in PRECS. This includes a poster presentation.

“There is a technique presentation that the students have to work on,” Carlson states. “Not only do they have to present their findings, but they have to show how they’ve gotten their results. The students are not doing this alone. We have working lunches to talk with the students. We always, always check in to make sure they are doing okay. They also have to check with their mentor.”

“I’m definitely getting more skilled in the lab, from the actual experiments to proper record keeping and data analysis, which will be helpful for my upper level science classes coming up this fall.” Hammer says. “I want to go to graduate school, and my mentors have been giving me advice and strategies for getting in and where to go for my major. Giving a poster presentation this summer will be good practice for communicating my work, which I will need for graduate school.”

Undergraduate students gain a large amount of experience and knowledge from being in the program. These moments, lessons, and information may influence or even change their paths.

“Studies published show that undergraduate research leads to higher retention in STEM related careers,” Carlson states. “Some STEM career paths can be competitive, but research opportunities help students stay in or even transfer into STEM related paths.”

“PRECS has helped me understand how much development and advancement there is for those studying science in any array of positions,” Allison Kelly, a Parkland student, says. “Speakers and experts from different expertise and backgrounds have shared with me their stories of research interest and grad-school experience. My mentors [have] helped me prepare for my future by being with me, letting me be with them, being in there with them in the lab, in the environment they’ve spent their lives mastering, I have learned more about what I find interesting, what I don’t, and what I might want to pursue.”

“I am planning on going into a STEM related field,” Gray states. “I want to be a rural primary care physician, so while PRECS isn’t teaching me skills directly related to that, it is teaching me lots of things that will help me get to my eventual goal and that are relevant to my understanding of the science behind medicine.”

Not only does Parkland offer PRECS, they also provide other opportunities to help students going into STEM related careers.

“The Natural Science Commons can be used as a mechanism to help students start conversations with fellow students in classes as well as professors,” Siechen states. “For our first year, it was very successful. Student to student, student to professor and even professor to professor conversations took place. It was, and is, a great place to study, and for students to have access to other students and faculty from the same field, or even those from other fields. Conversations ranged from homework, to test prep, to even futures.”

Along with PRECS and the Natural Science Commons, Parkland offers the Natural Science poster session. This is a great experience for all those who are under the STEM umbrella to get experience with presenting their work.

“It really is under appreciated…how important presenting your work to the science community is,” Siechen states. “Most, or even all, science conferences have poster sessions where people meet and discuss their work. The NS poster session is not a science fair; it really plays an important role. It helps students that are in the STEM field get firsthand experience with presenting their work to an audience of sorts.”

“Presenting your work benefits everyone,” Siechen states. “It benefits the public and students as they learn and read the work. It exposes the research to others to critique, or even to take on board for further research.”

Parkland is one of the many community colleges that students begin their college path in, even those going into the STEM field.

“People don’t realize how many jobs there are in the STEM field,” Siechen says. “Writers, quality control, editing, technological support. It’s easy to forget how many wonderful careers there are to choose from. The wonderful thing about STEM is that if something doesn’t work out in the science part for someone, they could go to engineering or even mathematics. Parkland is a great starting point to get on one of these paths, and into a career.”