$400K grant paves way for STEM scholars

A Florida A&M professor hopes to improve student participation in science and engineering classes by creating a program backed by a $400,000 grant.

The program, called the Comprehensive Preparation for Future Scientists and Engineers, will be awarded $100,000 yearly from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The grant was received in October.

The program will create courses for students majoring in science and engineering and design courses in scientific computing and nuclear physics. 

There will also be a research component to the program with topics of high-temperature composite materials, uranium and plutonium detection and more. 

The funding will also go to teaching assistantships, faculty members, tutors and supplies and will assist students with internships.

Jones said the objective is to increase student participation in STEM programs through his personally developed teaching methods. He said he urges students to solve problems by creating their own methods instead.

“I just give them something that’s more inspirational than ‘follow these steps,’ ” Jones said. “They sit here and debate, ‘Why is this the case?’ When they see a problem in mathematics, they can create the solution. When they see a problem in physics, they can create a solution instead of trying to recall.”

Jones said students are in dire need of this approach. The failure rate for calculus courses is more than 50 percent nationally and about 70 percent at FAMU, according to Jones.

Growing reliance on technology and strict adherence to material taught for standardized tests contribute to a large amount of students taking remedial math courses at FAMU, Jones said. 

“There’s a ton of opportunity in science and engineering, but most people don’t know basic algebra,” he said. “They take a class in algebra in high school, they memorize the steps, they pass the test and then what do they do? They forget.”

He added that because many students lack a basic foundation in math, the weakness could be devastating in later courses that require a basic understanding of math, such as chemistry or physics

But when a student finally understands a set of problems by developing his or her own technique, Jones said he or she “got over the fence.”

Brittany Hill, a first-year mechanical engineering student from Fayetteville, N.C., is one of the students who Jones said “made it.”

Hill said she was skeptical of Jones’ teaching methods at first, but she eventually accepted them, and they helped her better understand math. She said Jones administered a standardized college algebra test in class, and she earned a perfect score. 

Jones later asked her to work for him as a tutor this semester, and she accepted. But she had been tutoring outside of class long before. She said she tutors two days a week and enjoys the experience.

“Tutoring helps me learn, and if I know something and somebody’s struggling, I just naturally want to help other people,” she said. “It’s teaching me how to communicate better with people and how to look at math with different aspects. 

“And I like to see kids come in and not know anything, and be like, ‘Oh, now I get it.’ I come back the next day and they’re teaching other people.”

Hill said the funding adds a little extra pressure on her and other tutors, but she believes students are improving.

“We’re encouraged to work our hardest so we can get the desired results that these people want, which I think we’re doing pretty good,” Hill said. “Sometimes it puts a lot of pressure on us because we are students, too, but I need the pressure. It’s like a life lesson. It teaches time management.”

Tariq Bonnett, a first-year mechanical engineering student from Tallahassee, said he attends tutoring sessions twice a week and his understanding of math has improved from the tutoring.

“It’s got me from not really able to understand it to where I’m really able to grasp it,” he said. “I’m really starting to get it.
“The tutors are very helpful. If you ever have a question you want to go over, they’ll sit down with you, you’ll sit down with them and they’ll help you out.”

Jones said the new courses are only available to students who get his permission, but they will be regularly available next fall, depending on the success of his students. Permission will be granted to anyone willing to take on the challenge.

There is hope for students who struggle with math and feel they are behind on their courses, Jones said, and he believes the program will succeed.

“We’ve got to have a push and support to change innovation,” he said. “There’s no such thing as graduating ‘on time.’ There’s no such thing as ‘being behind’ on your studies. You’re not behind. You’re not ahead. You’re where you are.”