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UNI Junior Wins Goldwater Scholarship

Joseph Tibbs

Congratulations to Joseph Tibbs! Joseph is a UNI junior who is double majoring in physics and biochemistry. This year, he was one of less than 500 students across the United States who were awarded the Goldwater Scholarship in Science and Mathematics. The scholarship is nationally competitive, its purpose is to encourage talented students to pursue careers in the natural sciences, engineering, and mathematics. It is the preeminent scholarship of in these fields.

We interviewed Joseph in 2017, when he was already heavily involved in research and a wide variety of activities on campus. Learn more about him and his experience at UNI in the pdf below.

Brooke Wiese, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 05-02-19

New Physics Major Emphases

Students problem solving in lab.

It is becoming more and more helpful to take an interdisciplinary course of study in today’s changing world. The Physics Department has a solution! There is some exciting news for students looking to pursue a B.A. in Physics at UNI! And it involves two new possibilities when it comes to their degree’s emphasis. These two new emphases, Data Science and a Custom Emphasis, are remarkably interdisciplinary courses of study.

“We are very excited about the new B.A. Physics program,” Dr. Paul Shand, Physics Department head, said of changes. “It is structured to provide our students with the skills that are needed to flourish in a global economy that is increasingly data-driven and that requires multiple competencies.”

The Data Science emphasis emphasizes the use of statistics, coding, and analytical methods as means of obtaining useful information. Students would not just be learning to use critical thinking skills obtained from studying Physics, but also computer programming and statistics.

Dr. Shand explained, “The Data Science Emphasis is unique in that it combines high-level scientific data analysis with statistical and business analytics in a single program. These are programs that prepare students for a fast-approaching future in which the coin of the realm is data.”

The other emphasis is the Custom Emphasis, which allows students to select courses from a wider variety of STEM-based fields. Students have a very broad selection in this regard, ranging from Computer Science, Mathematics, Technology, Chemistry, Biology, and Earth and Environmental Sciences. If there is something a student takes quite a bit of interest in outside of Physics, this emphasis will make it easier for them to study it. It is an excellent choice for students looking to double major or prepare for jobs in high-demand industries.

Dr. Shand describes the new Custom Emphasis as “a mechanism for supplementing skills learned in another major with the rigorous analytical and computational problem-solving capabilities gained by studying physics.”

Both of these new Physics emphases will be available starting in Fall 2019. If you are a student looking to pursue a Physics-based interdisciplinary course of study, one of these majors might be a great fit for you.


Brooke Wiese, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 04-25-19

Finding Her Environment

Lily Conrad

Sometimes it takes just one event to change the course of someone’s future. According to Lily Conrad, this was definitely the case when it came to her education. Lily, now a senior and an Environmental Science major, came to the University of Northern Iowa to study Exercise Science.

“I played soccer for most of my life so I was really curious about the whole rehab and injury prevention and physical therapy process when it comes to sports and athletic injuries. I had decided on this when I was a sophomore in high school. I got like 50 hours shadowing in different clinic settings,” she said. “I said that I was not going to be one of those students who comes into college and switches their major. I thought, ‘I know what I’m doing.’”

However, a few weeks before her first semester, Lily started working at the Panther Plot, UNI’s student-run garden. Through that job, she was able to attend a sustainability conference in Minneapolis. She spoke with both students and professionals who worked fields like in sustainability, environmental science, and biology. This changed all of her plans.

“It was really powerful . . . I changed my major because the conference opened up my mind to the meaning behind this work and not just doing something because it’s what you’ve been planning on doing. In high school you don’t know what you’re going to do,” she explained.

Since then, Lily has been extremely active and involved at UNI. During her freshman year, she helped organize a recycled art showcase in Rod Library for Earth Month. She also got a better compost bin for the Panther Plot. Last year, with Green Project, the Earth Science Honors Society, AmeriCorps, and the UNI rugby team, she ran a kite flying event to promote awareness for the outdoor trails around UNI’s campus. 

“We were out by the wetland by the WRC parking lot, and the humane society brought dogs for people to walk. I was there with Green Project and some other people and we had kites for people to fly. It ended up being like the least windy day ever in Iowa, conveniently, but it was still a lot of fun,” she said of the event.

More recently, Lily and the Earth Science Honors Society acquired funding from the Green Fund to replace all of the fluorescent hallway lights in Latham with LEDs. The Green Fund is a fund recently set up by NISG through which students can apply for funding for various projects ranging from sustainable-progressive projects to educational programs and activities that promote sustainability.

Because she participated in the National Student Exchange program, she spent her sophomore year in Oregon, making her junior year her first complete year as an Environmental Science major at UNI.

“I’m glad I didn’t transfer because this program is really amazing. The department is small, but the support is overwhelming. There are so many opportunities! I’ve had research opportunities and teaching assistant opportunities and leadership opportunities. There are a lot of opportunities in the department that have really helped me grow into my major and find the part of Environmental Science I’m really passionate about.”

Sedimentary geology was one of her favorite courses she has taken at UNI. “There were a lot of fieldtrips and Dr. Sedlacek is very knowledgeable. I do well with her teaching style, so it was really enjoyable,” she said. Another course she enjoyed was Hydrology, in large part because she wants to work in that field. Hydrology is the study of the properties of Earth’s water. “That class tends to get mixed reviews because it’s really intense, but it’s one of my favorite ones.”

Lily has had quite a few research opportunities at UNI, and she has taken advantage of them. She has done some research with Dr. Mark Myers involving pollinator habitat restoration and flower quality analysis, and she thought it was a lot of fun, but her current research is more related to the field she wants to go into after graduation: Hydrology.

“My main research that I do right now is that I’m a part of a long term water quality monitoring project of the Cedar River and Dry Run Creek . . . I also manage the hydrology lab from the environmental science department,” she said. Dr. Mohammed Iqbal is her adviser for this project. As part of the project, she has taken samples from 15 different sites ranging from Janesville to Waterloo. She does some field tests when she collects the samples, then takes them back to the lab for an analysis process that lasts around 5 days. The data from the long term project is available of UNI’s Hydrology website:

“I was able to present the data I collected at the Geological Society of America’s conference last fall. It was a temporal and spatial analysis of the water quality in the Cedar River. . . and comparing it to the West Okoboji Lake,” she explained. “I had an internship at Lakeside lab last summer so I was able to take some samples there while I was working. So I could compare the two and see the difference between a moving body of water and a standing body of water. It’s been a great experience since I want to go to graduate school for Hydrology.”

Lily has also been working on independent research with a professor from Colorado State University. His study focuses on modeling, which Lily wanted to gain more experience in because it is not something anyone specializes in when it comes to Hydrology at UNI. She said her work with him has supplemented the research she has done at UNI because it has added the modeling component and given her a new way to work with data.

Lily would like to encourage current and future STEM students to look for interesting opportunities. “Don’t be afraid to be inquisitive when it comes to opportunities that extend beyond the classroom setting,” she said. “I feel like when I talk to a lot of people about internships or research, they just don’t ask about it, so they miss all of these opportunities. It’s pretty easy to ask someone to help you find a direction and keep asking until it works. That’s what I did, and now I feel more confident and qualified for applying to graduate school and other things in the future.”


Brooke Wiese, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 04-18-19

A New Horizon: Exploring Space Education

A single trip to the NASA Space Exploration Educators Conference (SEEC) gave two UNI students an entirely new perspective on space education. This experience inspired them and a UNI professor to share the ideas and methods they learned with other pre-service teachers in the form of a workshop, which was covered in last week’s story and will be free to students. Dr. Rinehart, Tyler Brown, and Tori Wells would recommend the experience they had at SEEC to future educators in every discipline.

On top of presentations by the well-known NASA personalities, the group attended sessions hosted by in-service teachers and NASA affiliated scientists about how to integrate space exploration education into classrooms. Before the conference, neither Tori nor Tyler had heard much about space exploration education, but they came away with a great deal of interest.

“I think what we have now is space education, small elements of it built in,” Dr. Rinehart elaborated. “That exploration word is missing, so you learned that there are planets or you learned that there's this or that or this other thing, but there's no description of how we got there. How did we figure this stuff out? And I think that that process piece was pretty essential if you want to come to appreciate the core of the discipline.”

One session that Rinehart and Tori went to focused on the subject of supply chain and logistics management for space flight, or, in other words, how you might pack for astronauts headed to the International Space Station. “That was interesting insofar as it applies to education that it gets students thinking very operationally about how to carry out a mission and what's involved in that,” Rinehart explained. This session inspired the first activity of their upcoming workshop, where students will plan and carry out their own mission to Mars.

Tori’s biggest takeaway from the conference was how every lesson plan given by the workshop leaders could be changed and adapted for different grade levels. This was beneficial to her as an Elementary Education major, because her students would require a different level of difficulty than older students, but also because many of the lessons were written through a cross-curricular lens.

“I learned a lot on how you can adapt each lesson for pretty much any grade and make it to how you would want it to best fit your classroom. I learned a lot about how you combine different subjects and make the activities cross-curricular,” Tori said.

Tyler, a Physics Education major, had a similar takeaway. “We’re teaching more cross-curricular things in high school too, and that might not seem super useful at first, but I can compare with other teachers. I can differentiate my projects for different students depending on what they like. Not all of them are going to be purely math-driven students, and we need to be ready for that.”

A big focus of the conference was how scientific space exploration education could incorporate aspects from across the curriculum. This was also reflected in the attendees. Because the trip was funded by the Iowa Space Grant Consortium, Tyler and Tori met up with in-service teachers from elsewhere in Iowa. Each teacher had a different specialty—from Math to English.

SEEC is held annually at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. This was 25th year of the conference, so they invited quite a few big names. One of them was Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission to Pluto. During his session, attendees were able to see new images from the mission and learn about how it was carried out. UNI’s group collectively agreed that “it was awesome.”

Gene Krantz, flight director for Apollo 13 and several other NASA missions, was another speaker at the conference. Astronaut Clay Anderson also had a session that the whole group attended. Later this month, he will meet with those who went to conference thanks to funding from the Iowa Space Grant Consortium.

“I think we hit the jackpot this year because they had this anniversary and were inviting all of these big name people,” Dr. Rinehart said.

This was not Dr. Rinehart’s first conference, but it was the first time he brought along students. Both students expressed interest in attending again, with Tyler saying how he was so excited to attend as many sessions as possible that he ended up skipping lunch. Dr. Rinehart says he definitely bring students again in the future.

“I can say that without hesitation or reservation,” he said of the experience. “I think one of the best parts of the conference was when we were all tired. The conference was over. We went back to the hotel. We sat in the lobby and got dinner and we shared. We realized how many things we came away from this conference with and how many things we were ready to share when we got back here.”


Brooke Wiese, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 04-04-19

NASA Space Exploration Workshop On Campus

Tori Wills, Tyler Brown, and Dr. Ronald Rinehart in front of Shuttle Bay 2

Last month, Dr. Ronald Rinehart and two of his students, Tori Wells (Elementary Education) and Tyler Brown (Physics Education), attended a conference at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. At the Space Exploration Educators Conference, they went to lectures and workshops led by in-service teachers and NASA affiliated scientists and designed to teach educators how to bring the ideas of space exploration into the classroom. Taking in everything they learned from NASA, Rinehart and his students will host one of their own. The workshop is free to UNI students.

“We decided our goal was to let our pre-service teachers see what space exploration means, not just space science, but with an emphasis on the explore part—how you get there and actually do the work of exploring space.” Speaking about how space science is taught in schools today, Dr. Rinehart explains further, “That exploration word is missing, so you learned that there are planets or you learned that there's this or that or this other thing, but there's no description of how we got there. How did we figure this stuff out? And I think that process piece is pretty essential if you want to come to appreciate the core of the discipline.”

According to Dr. Rinehart, teaching space exploration on top of space science is important. It’s about inspiring the next generation of space explorers, whether that is through manned exploration or through robotics. The workshop will help UNI education students become future teachers of space exploration.

In the workshop, pre-service teachers will learn how to help their students plan for a mission to Mars. This will be done in three stages, each drawing upon an interdisciplinary approach where students will use and develop not only math and science skills, but reading, writing, programming, and problem solving as well.

In phase one, students will learn to pack for their trip to Mars. In phase two, students will learn to construct simple rockets. The third phase is the robotic exploration of a large, simulated Mars-like terrain.

“We’re giving them some authentic challenges that NASA scientists actually have to face . . . we’re trying to introduce that,” Rinehart explains. “Still, it’ll also be fun and interesting . . . We’re hoping teachers will really find something meaningful that they can take back and do these kind of activities with their students. All three activities integrate. They pack for Mars, they launch for Mars, they land on Mars, and they explore Mars. ”

Besides the robots used in phase three, the entire activity is very affordable. The workshop will include talking to the teachers about how they might apply for grants for their own future classrooms.

This project is supported by the Iowa Space Grant Consortium under NASA Award No. NNX16AL88H.

Where: University Room, Maucker Union

When: April 22nd, 3:30-5:30pm. Check-in at 3:20.

Register at  


Brooke Wiese, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 03-25-19


UNI FREE Program

UNI FREE, Fabulous Resources for Energy Education Logo is the word FREE in modern text over University of Northern Iowa
 The UNI Fabulous Resources for Energy Education (FREE) Program provides classroom resources on energy topics and a kit loan/purchase program.
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