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Behind the scenes of Scots Science Scholars

What do the bats in Anderson Hall have in common with fracking machinery, ziplines and the Tennessee Valley Authority? Although they seem unrelated at first glance, each has played a role in offering a group of 13 Maryville College students unprecedented exploration into potential careers through hands-on research and collaborative learning.

The Scots Science Scholars program, or S3, is a new MC initiative that aims to support a handful of undergraduate students in the challenging fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

According to Dr. Maria Siopsis, associate professor of mathematics and co-director of S3 alongside Dr. Angelia Gibson, associate professor of chemistry, the Science Scholars program was founded as a response to an increasing trend of intelligent students abandoning prospective STEM majors within their first year at Maryville.

“We perceived a need to help students persist through the beginning of our STEM majors,” Siopsis said. “These are students we felt like could succeed with a little extra support and motivation.”

Funded by the National Science Foundation, S3 hit the ground running with a 2013 summer program for its debut members, and the program is enjoying an exceptional first year in the MC spotlight.

The Science Scholars program is all about practical application of STEM principles, and it has already amassed an extensive list of hands-on research and extracurricular learning for its members. These opportunities, which include access to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, tagging Monarch butterflies, touring Anderson Hall with an engineer, touring a drill and fracking machine manufacturer, attending an undergraduate research conference and more, provide an outlet for the Science Scholars to detach from the traditional classroom setting and experience STEM in an engaging, interactive environment.

Furthermore, each opportunity presented to S3 illustrates an entirely new facet of STEM career possibilities to the scholars.

“S3 has taught me that there are things outside of the medical field in science that you can apply your major to,” said Thomas Moore, a Scot Science Scholar. “I thought I was going to be a pediatrician; since beginning S3, I have changed my mind and want to do something along the lines of field ecology.”

Students of S3 are required to do a semester of research on the topic of their choice, which helps guide them in their preparation for a senior thesis and serves as practical experience for a graduate program or future career. The students, who work in conjunction with student mentors as well as members of the faculty, have projects such as the analysis of campus energy use, assistance in constructing the health sciences advising center and analyzing the movements and housing habits of the Anderson Hall bats in the works.

Science Scholar Sarah Hagans will have the opportunity to present her research at the Blue Ridge Undergraduate research conference, which is an accomplishment for both Hagans and the one year-old S3 program.

Even the professors are finding the program an exciting learning experience.

“It allows me to be creative in ways that I might not otherwise, and it has broadened my horizons in terms of my awareness of how STEM disciplines are used in the non-academic world,” Siopsis said.

Siopsis said that she is also excited about how the program can be utilized to expand STEM exposure to the entire campus through S3-funded guest speakers, on-campus activities, and projects that affect and represent not only the S3 researchers, but the MC student body.

The research experience and STEM exposure are not the only aspects of S3 that benefits Science Scholars and faculty. The relationships fostered between campus STEM enthusiasts on both sides of the student-teacher spectrum have proven constructive for everyone involved.

In fact, Moore said that his most meaningful experience with S3 has been his relationship with Dr. Siopsis.

“She has helped me in making many decisions related to my personal life as well as my academic life,” Moore said.

This feeling is mutual for the professors.

“I have always enjoyed the close mentoring relationships we build with our students here at MC,” Siopsis said. “I feel like this program has taken that to another level.”

This is only the first year for the Scots Science Scholars, and if it is any indication of what the future holds for the program, Siopsis hopes S3 will continue to have a high impact on camp.

“I hope we can continue to expose more and more students to the kinds of opportunities available to STEM majors, and also send the message that a STEM major is attainable for many of our students,” Siopsis said.

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