Academics in Action

Professor at chalboard

Scientific Development

Whittier College Awards Grants to Promote Science and Math Education 

from The Rock, Winter 2013

IT IS A TRUISM that research opportunities in science and math at the undergraduate level have the power to highly motivate students—and open doors to future career paths.

Simply take a look at the experience of a few of our recent graduates.

Kristina Little

Having made the decision to pursue a major in biochemistry, Kristina Little ’12 connected in her sophomore year with chemistry professor Ralph Isovitch, who offered her the opportunity to join his student research team exploring “synthesis and luminescence characterization of a novel stilbene.” In addition to publishing a co-authored article on their work, the team would later receive an invitation to share their results at the American Chemical Society (ACS) annual meeting, among others, enabling Little not only to gain experience in presentation, but also to network with fellow chemists and professionals in attendance.

Little is now a first-year medical student at the University of Texas.

Andres Villalpando

Andres Villalpando ’11 also worked alongside Isovitsch during his junior and senior years. In the Stauffer chemistry lab, he participated in targeted investigative research leading to three, co-authored articles published in scientific journals, including the Journal of Molecular Structure. Villalpando also had the chance to give a presentation with Isovitch at the ACS spring 2010 meeting.

He is now pursuing a Ph.D. in chemistry at Louisiana State University.

Angelica Gonzalez

Angelica Gonzalez ’12 was one of 19 students to receive a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship at Whittier College. Under the terms of the award, Gonzalez’ worked with math professor and mentor Mark Kozek, who in the summer before her junior year, encouraged her to apply to the extremely competitive Budapest Semester in Mathematics. Winning entry to this prestigious program, Gonzalez had exposure to some of that country’s most prominent and leading mathematicians, and returned the following semester to Whittier’s campus, energized to continue her own research with Kozek into the relationship between Sierpiski, Riesel, and Fibonacci numbers.

Gonzalez currently attends the University of Arizona, working on her Ph.D. in mathematics.

Jun Nishguchi

During his time at Whittier, math and physics double major Jun Nishiguchi ’08 worked closely with math professor Jeff Lutgen on a cluster computing and parallel programming research project. As part of this collaboration, he has the opportunity to study and work on a wide range of topics including computer hardware, programming, networks, and scientific computing. According to Nishiguchi, this work allowed him to gain crucial fundamental knowledge of software which prepared him to pursue a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering at Cornell University.

He recently started his first job as an embedded software SQA engineer in the Tokyo office of Nvidia, a world-wide company in visual computing technologies.

At Whittier, The Norm

Though one might cite the successes and drive of Little, Villalpando, Gonzalez, and Nishiguchi  as atypical, the statistics at Whittier College confirm otherwise.

In the last decade alone, more than 30 percent of Whittier College graduates who majored in the fields of science or math have gone on to earn advanced degrees in competitive programs, and more than 80 percent of science majors who apply to graduate medical programs are admitted.

In the annual National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), Whittier has consistently scored at the top of the charts among peer liberal arts colleges in the areas of “active and collaborative learning,” and “enriching educational experiences,” among others. Categories such as these are proven key indicators of effective educational practice, and clearly demonstrate that the opportunities Whittier provides students are making impact.

As the higher education landscape now dictates, the learning environment for today’s college student must be challenging, supportive, relevant, and clearly focused on training and preparing graduates to enter the workforce—particularly in the areas of math and science, where America’s global leadership has declined. But experience in fieldwork and collaborative, professional-quality research is fast becoming an essential part of all undergraduate resumes, not just in science and math. Credits, such as presentations and publications, help new graduates distinguish themselves in the admission process of competitive advanced degree programs and fellowships, as well as in the professional marketplace for internships and career entry.

Fortunately, at Whittier College this is the norm, with tremendous effort applied by faculty and administration to increase the number of available opportunities and number of disciplines involved. Key to this work has been the development of the Centers of Distinction, designed to thematically unite fields of study through collaborative research projects, showcase events, and fellowship/ scholarship/ internship experiences for talented students. Through these centers, Whittier College has recorded an increase in the number of faculty-student projects taking place in summer months, projects linking the curriculum to outside organizations, and an overall steady growth of external interest in the College’s educational program.

On the Right Track

Whittier’s successful track record on this front is not only apparent in the immediate community, but also from the tremendous recognition and endorsement the College has received in the form of financial support from esteemed organizations. Last year, Whittier was  among a select group of colleges and universities invited to apply for a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI)—a prestigious foundation that targets for support only those programs and schools it considers to demonstrate model, innovative curricula in the fields of science and math. This past May, the College received word that it had, in fact, received a HHMI grant—one of only a few schools to attain this honor—to support its new Science and Math in Research and Training (SMART) initiative, which integrates undergraduate preparation with practical experience and innovations in the way math and science are taught. The College likewise earned a critical nod this year from the National Institutes of Health’s Biomedical/ Biobehavioral Research Administration Program, which selected Whittier for a significant monetary award to support ongoing efforts to secure more funding for experiential learning through the development of an Office of Sponsored Research. This enhancement to the existing infrastructure will enable College faculty to better identify, pursue, secure, and administer additional research funding, which, in turn, will lead to exponential increases in undergraduate student research, fieldwork, and related opportunities.

Such endorsements from nationally renowned agencies as HHMI and NIH are critical as they not only underscore that Whittier’s undergraduate educational model is relevant and forward-thinking, but also substantiate the value of the Whittier experience: a rigorous, challenging, and practical curriculum, delivered in a supportive and outcomes-focused environment.

Moreover, these grants considerably benefit work already taking place through the Center for Science, Health, and Policy (CSHP) and its related disciplines. These grants direct critical monetary support toward Whittier’s programs in science and math, and augment existing fellowship and scholarship opportunities underwritten by the Keck Foundation, Fletcher Jones Foundation, Southern California Edison, Andrew Mellon Foundation, and other private investors, such as the recently established Janet L. Roberts ’64, M.D. Fellowship in Biology and the Virginia and Donald Baudrand Fellowships in Chemistry. In the past three years alone, external funding such as this has enabled the College to create 120 new research opportunities for students, with more than 40 related fellowships already awarded. With this groundswell of foundation and private support, the momentum to design additional experiences and place even more students in highly competitive programs in math and science continues to grow at record rates.

As a result, students like Little, Villalpando, Gonzalez, Nishiguchi  and countless others currently taking part in the Center’s activities, have increased access to resume-building experiences, exposure to professional organizations and networks, and key fieldwork/research training, as they work alongside faculty mentors and within independent projects.

And that, as quantitative and qualitative studies show, is where Whittier College distinguishes itself among peer institutions and attracts the interest of top-notch funding organizations.

As Sean Carroll, HHMI vice president of science education, emphasized: "HHMI [chooses to] invest in a school like Whittier College because it has shown it is a superb incubator of new ideas and models that might be replicated by other institutions, to improve how [these subjects are] taught in college.”

Training the Next Generation of Math and Science Professionals

Under the terms of the new four-year, $800,000 HHMI grant, the College’s proposed SMART program will be implemented, with a detailed plan to promote timely and innovative strategies to improve science and math education at the high school level. This grant will advance the way undergraduates and graduate students—who will become the next generation of secondary school science and math teachers—are educated, and help current teachers integrate new approaches to the material. To realize this new SMART initiative, the College has partnered with two schools in the Whittier Union High School District (WUHSD) and drawn together a committee of veteran Whittier science, math, and education teachers to help direct and assess the program through its execution.

Those Whittier College students selected to participate in the SMART program will make a two-year commitment to advance along a career track to teach math and science in public schools. Student fellows will be drawn primarily from—though not exclusive to--those majoring in math or science disciplines and who are considering careers in education. The extent of program participation will include specialized college courses in teaching math and science, a summer intensive curriculum under a master teacher and subject-area research project, and student teaching assignments.

In tandem, SMART will also enable a set of WUHSD's high school science and math teachers to make curricular innovations as they work with the College's faculty and student teaching and research fellows. A central change, for example, will be an inquiry-based, research-oriented approach—much like the platform found in Whittier College classrooms. Under this model, students will engage with the material rather than simply learn by rote, and in the end, they will acquire not only a greater conceptual depth of comprehension, but in many cases, a greater interest in the field.

“The mechanics of the SMART program are not revolutionary to Whittier College,” notes Dave Bourgaize, Fletcher Jones Professor of Molecular Biology and director for the HHMI grant. “This platform for instruction mirrors what has been occurring in our classrooms for years. But what truly distinguishes the SMART program is that it will significantly alter how science and math are taught—and learned--at the elemental levels.”

On the one hand, he says, the program will offer K-12 students and teachers a whole new way to navigate foundational material, one that’s multi-dimensional, experiential, and more hands-on. On the other hand, it will provide Whittier College students the opportunity to train in effective teaching methodology and practices in concrete ways and within actual high school labs and classrooms.

“In essence,” Bourgaize continues, “we anticipate that SMART’s discovery-based curricula will meet three specific aims. First, it will heighten interest among young scholars in the fields of math and science by providing them a new way to access fundamental concepts. Second, it will invigorate the current teaching corps by introducing more excitement and engagement within the daily classroom lesson plan. And third, it will highly motivate those teachers-in-training to lead the charge in building the next generation of dedicated and competent math and science scholars--and future colleagues.”

“Equally exciting, this marks a whole new collaboration on campus between our math, science, and education departments,” says education professor Lauren Swanson, one of the guiding faculty for the initiative. “It capitalizes on the College’s longstanding working relationships with local schools, creates a pipeline for future STEM educators who can address a critical regional and national need, and delivers an innovative, practical, and focused training ground for students in our three departments (and beyond) which is not typically available to them.”

“Most competitive summer programs in math and science exclusively target students on a Ph.D. track, and rarely—if ever--do they have a pedagogical emphasis,” says math professor Mark Kozek, another member of the faculty leadership engaged in the program. “Our SMART program, however, targets exceptional students who want to go into science or math teaching. In this alone, it is innovative.”

 “We intend that our graduates who choose to pursue teaching careers at the K-12 levels (and beyond) be about preparing their students to ‘do real science and math,’ and not just pass some standardized test,” Kozek asserts.

Most importantly, though, the combination of study and experience at this stage in a student’s educational career will invaluably inform his/her comprehension and methodologies moving forward—and, much like the undergraduate research opportunities secured by Little, Villalpando, Gonzalez, and Nishiguchi, will help set Whittier College grads apart, both in the job market and as they compete for entry into advanced degree programs.

Building Infrastructure, Growing Opportunity 

With a goal of securing future grants to further increase collaborative research and fieldwork opportunities for faculty and students across all disciplines, including math and science, a $428,000 grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, one of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), will help the College build capacity in research administration infrastructure. The funds—which will be expended over the next five years—are helping to establish an Office of Research and Sponsored Programs (ORSP) for Whittier faculty.

The primary objectives of the new ORSP are to increase faculty research activity at Whittier by augmenting efforts to identify and secure new grants across all disciplines; build research capacity in the biomedical and biobehavioral fields; and to craft appropriate channels and procedures to administer and steward those awards received.

In October, Shuna Holmes began her position as ORSP director. Holmes came to Whittier from Charles Drew University, where she served as a senior grants financial manager, assisting faculty with the administration and stewardship of awarded funds. Prior to that, she held related posts at USC, Cedars Sinai Medical Center, and California State University’s Chancellor’s Office. In her role for Whittier, Holmes now assists faculty in post-award management, finance, and compliance, as well as in exploration of new grant opportunities and submissions preparation.

Education and child development professor Anne Sebanc, who was instrumental in the securing of the NIH award, is the principal investigator on this grant and now also serves as the director of faculty grants. As such, she is liaison between the ORSP and her Whittier colleagues, both assisting in the promotion of the ORSP as a critical resource for faculty, and mentoring fellow faculty as they take part in grant prospect identification, grant writing, and proposal development. Sebanc prepared for her new position this summer by attending three weeks of intensive training at the NIH headquarters in Washington, D. C.

Together, Sebanc and Holmes now strengthen Whittier’s capacity to manage the grant process from initial identification to application, awarding, and beyond. They work closely with the foundation and government relations office director John Bak, co-principal investigator of the NIH grant, and associate director Juliette Cagigas to build on the college’s recent fundraising successes. And as for students, this NIH investment in Whittier simply translates to one major benefit: a significant increase on the near horizon for undergraduate research and fieldwork experiences.

Wrapping it All Up

Alumnus Bilal Shaw ’01 recently came back to Whittier College to participate in the Backpack to Briefcase program, where alumni give current students career advice.

Shaw told students that he knew from the beginning that Whittier College was the right place for him. Upon arrival, he enrolled in the 3-2 Engineering Program, a five-year course of study that leads to a B.A. from Whittier College and a B.S. in engineering from a university – in his case the University of Southern California.

At Whittier he worked with math professor Howard Lucafar. “He was a brilliant, brilliant professor and he loved teaching,” said Shaw.

“For the summer I was interested in doing some hands-on work. He showed me the ropes on how to do the programming for this instrument that used a particular kind of language.”

His experience – both the technical knowledge acquired and confidence building that came with working closely with a faculty member – would come in handy as he progressed in his studies.

Shaw continued his research at USC where he earned a B.S., M.S., and Ph.D. He currently works as a scientist at ID Analytics, a computer analytics company based in San Diego.

“Whittier College laid the foundation for me,” said Shaw. “The teachers and teaching is just amazing here.”