APSU Education Professors Work Abroad with NSF Grant

This article was originally published by Austin Peay State University.

A group of faculty members from Austin Peay State University’s Eriksson College of Education traveled to France this summer as part of a three-year, $300,000 International Research Experience for Students (IRES) grant from the National Science Foundation. The team, consisting of John McConnell, Philip Short and Donna Short, arrived in June to evaluate Austin Peay STEM students participating in the program at the University of Rennes.

The University of Rennes, in Rennes, France, along with the two other European universities participating, specialize in nano and glass technology. As part of the experience, six Austin Peay students conduct research and learn from experts in these fields each year. The students also gain valuable cultural experience throughout their seven weeks in Europe.

Andriy Kovalskiy, a professor in Austin Peay’s Department of Physics, Engineering and Astronomy, is the project’s principal investigator. Kovalskiy was persistent in bringing the Jack Hunt STEM Center, where the Shorts serve as co-directors, onto the project. With a background in biology rather than physics, Philip Short was initially hesitant to evaluate the research of students at these specialized nanotechnology and glass science sites.

“The project seemed very interesting and very worthy of funding; however, I’m an old biologist – not a physicist,” Philip Short said. “Thankfully, Kovalskiy was persistent and patient with me as I eventually understood the role for the Jack Hunt STEM Center team to assess the educational effectiveness of the program overall.”

Scope of Evaluation

The Austin Peay education professors’ work abroad included viewing student presentations and learning more about their research projects, with focus group sessions and interviews throughout the week-long visit. As a part of the experience, students completed surveys, onsite interviews and a video documentary to be assessed by the Eriksson College of Education team. Philip Short was impressed by the students’ ability to use the specialized equipment and apply the required chemistry and physics concepts in such a short time period.

“The striking thing is that each student, in this early stage of their careers, is able to find potential, novel applications to their specific field of interests, diagnoses in veterinary and human medicine, phase-change materials for machine learning, identification and characterization of ancient, volcanic rock, military and civilian optical applications and more,” he said.

The evaluators also work in tandem with Kovalskiy and the co-principal investigators from the College of STEM — Roman Holovchak, Justin Oelgoetz, Carrie Brennan, Pei Xiong-Skiba, Erik Haroldson and Gilbert Pitts – as student participants are selected during each fall semester.

“Prior to their deliberations on the selection of students for the next year, our evaluation team is consulted for any observations from the previous year’s cohort that may be insightful about selections or pairing of students for the three participating EU sites,” Philip Short said. “We do not have any role in selecting students; however, some of our records from interviews and surveys may influence the consideration of which attributes in applicants may lead to optimal success in the program.”

In 2022, the professors traveled to evaluate Austin Peay students at the University of Pardubice in the Czech Republic. Next summer, they will travel to the University of Rzeszow in Poland to review the grant progress there. Their evaluator duties continue throughout the year.

“By utilizing a pre/post survey, a final complementary survey, evaluation of seminar presentations, evaluation of the video documentary and assessments of any products and/or presentations and publications resulting from the research experience, the STEM Center program evaluators have multiple points of reference from which to measure educational and personal gains of the participants,” Philip Short said. “The STEM Center evaluators are, in various ways, engaged with the grant PIs, co-PIs and senior personnel, as well as the student participants throughout the academic year and into the summer.”

A Different Cultural View

While abroad, the professors enjoyed sightseeing in Paris, hiking through the French countryside, and gaining more appreciation for the cultural and intellectual features abroad. The University of Rennes is much more connected to the private sector than U.S. universities, as the scientists are focused on creating and producing new novel glasses for companies.

“Being the first trip to France for all three of us, we enjoyed visiting many of the iconic, ‘must-see’ sites in the capital city,” Philip Short said. “One work aspect of these cultural journeys is to put our finger on the pulse of the attitudes, acceptance and understandings of science in general among the populations.”

Philip Short explained that the ability for interdepartmental collaboration is part of what makes the Austin Peay experience great and allows for greater personal and professional growth for the students and faculty alike.

“The APSU students have been so impressive in their presentations, but they have each shown the incredible ability to explain their work on a level accessible by any somewhat educated person in any field,” Philip Short said. “Being able to work with Kovalskiy and his grant team of diverse scientists in providing real-world research experiences to our university’s students is bridging the hard sciences with science education in a way that is sure to provide valuable insights to both camps as the CoE and CoSTEM continue to collaborate into the future on projects of common interests.”

The Jack Hunt STEM Center works to provide professional development and resources to local science, technology, engineering and math teachers. The Eriksson College of Education offers initial teacher licensure and educational leadership degree programs, with a focus on equipping educators with the tools they need to succeed.

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