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STEM Beat

A teacher for teachers, mentor for mentors


The Iowa Academy of Science awarded Dr. Dawn Del Carlo, associate professor of chemistry at the University of Northern Iowa, the 2017 Excellence in Science Teaching Award for Science Supervisory at the academy’s 129th annual meeting on April 21, 2017.

The ESTA Awards, introduced in 1969, recognize science teachers of all grade levels for their work and innovation in science education.

Interestingly, it was not until the end of her college career that Dr. Del Carlo realized that she liked teaching.

“However, at that point, to go back and complete the requirements for teacher certification would have added 2-3 years on to my program,” says Dr. Del Carlo, then a chemistry major who was about to graduate from Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. “So, I opted to go on to graduate school with the intent to also pursue my teacher certification.”

As she was working towards an M.S. in Inorganic Chemistry at Purdue University in Indiana, she fell in love with research. “I decided to stay on for a Ph.D. so I could do both research and teach at the college level,” she recalls.

She earned her Ph.D. in 2001, in Chemistry Education.

“While in Chemistry Education, my Ph.D. was actually granted from a chemistry department,” says Dr. Del Carlo. “Much like Chemistry has sub-disciplines like Organic Chemistry, Biochemistry, or Analytical Chemistry, Purdue’s chemistry department has Chemistry Education.”

The difference between a degree in chemistry education and a degree in other sub-disciplines depends on how a university lays out its program, she says.

“In the undergraduate programs at UNI, all secondary teaching majors are actually majors in their content departments,” she explains. “For example, a Chemistry Teaching major is a Chemistry major. As such, most science teaching majors actually have to take more courses than their peers because they have to take not only all the same science classes but also the education classes the state of Iowa requires in order to obtain a teaching license.”

Similarly, at Purdue, Dr. Del Carlo took courses in Educational Psychology, Educational Research, History and Philosophy of Science, and Curriculum and Instruction as part of graduate training in addition to the chemistry course and testing requirements.

One major difference is in the research project that one undertakes for one’s degree, she says.

“For my MS, the research was bench chemistry related, much like the other graduate students in the chemistry program,” she adds. “However, my doctoral dissertation was actually an educational research project, specifically focused on issues related to teaching chemistry content.”

It was her doctoral dissertation that forced her to think differently about the teaching of chemistry.

Was it also when she became interested in working with teachers?

“I’m not sure I can put my finger on when this started,” Dr. Del Carlo says. “Part of it was that it was simply something that ‘comes with the job.’  Part of doing research in a field is also sharing that information with others. Since my field is research in science teaching, it’s only natural that I would share that information with other science teachers, at all levels.”

Her work at UNI is multifaceted and multidimensional.

“Currently I function as an academic advisor to all chemistry teaching majors and some All Science and Middle Level science teaching majors,” she says. “In addition to general chemistry courses for science majors, I teach elementary education majors physical science in SCI ED 1300 and El Ed majors getting a minor in science in SCI ED 2300.”

Dr. Del Carlo is also the graduate coordinator for the M.A. in Science Education. The interdisciplinary program, offered by the College of Humanities, Arts and Sciences, is tailored for mostly in-service K12 science teachers.

“I advise students in the program with regard to their course work, program requirements and mentoring them in their final MA project,” she says. “I have also taught several courses in the program including Research Methods in Science Education, Misconceptions in Science Education, and Using the Science Writing Heuristic.”

Dr. Del Carlo has also been involved in several grant-funded professional development projects for in-service science teachers.

“These projects focused on topics such as chemistry lab safety, chemistry lab instruction, using the Science Writing Heuristic, and most recently, integrating and writing curriculum for the new Iowa Science Standards/Next Generation Science Standards,” she says.

Dr. Del Carlo believes it is important that secondary science education faculty be embedded in science department “something that not all institutions buy into.”

“I think the importance is twofold,” she explains. “First, faculty in general share their expertise within each of their specific sub-disciplines. Science departments where education faculty are not embedded don’t have that resource available to them. And while teaching-conscientious faculty will go out and educate themselves, it’s much easier to integrate good teaching  when you have a colleague or colleagues who support your efforts and can serve as a resource.”

“Second, and this is especially important at an institution like UNI where so much importance and focus is on teacher education, science faculty with education specialties serve as a constant reminder that K12 teacher education is a campus-wide endeavor,” she adds. “It’s quite easy for an institution to relegate ‘all things teacher ed’ to the College of Education and essentially wash their hands of training the next generation of science teachers. Science education faculty who maintain appointments in science departments are able to model the fact that teacher education is a science issue; not just a College of Education issue.”

Dr. Del Carlo believes a new science teacher should approach their first year “one day at a time.” “Live for the good days and realize that the not so good days were just one day, it’ll be better tomorrow,” she says.

For middle and high school students who aspire to study science education and become a science teacher, her advice is straight and simple: “Stay passionate and stay curious. Those are the two things that, if you can model and show others, will make you a great teacher.”

When asked what she would tell high school students if they ask her why they should major in any of the STEM fields for their bachelor’s degrees, she said there was no single answer to this question.

“I guess my first response would actually be a question back to them:  ‘Do you love it?’  Because if they love it (even just one part of science) then there’s no reason not to pursue it,” she says. “But they should also keep in mind that their initial path in science might not be the one they land in.  That’s what makes it so awesome.”


Posted: 05-03-17

It’s STEM Summer Camps time


As spring makes way for summer, and a long break looms, many parents in the Cedar Valley area may have already started wondering—and perhaps worrying too—how best their school-going children can spend the long days and weeks ahead. Fun is, of course, on the menu but wouldn’t it be nice too if they could learn something useful along the way? The combination of fun and learn that these parents seek for their children is a major feature of the STEM summer camps at the University of Northern Iowa.

“The idea is to help children learn about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in an environment full of fun and excitement,” says UNI STEM Coordinator Marcy Seavey whose office organizes and oversees the camps every summer. “The ultimate objective is to generate interest and confidence about STEM subjects among elementary, middle, and high school students in the area so that, when it’s time for them to go to college and, eventually choose a career, they opt for a STEM field.”

“Our campers build and program robots, design their own art projects, and wind turbines,” she adds. “They gain skills that, as our past evaluations show, make them more confident in their STEM skills.”

Summer camps are by no means a novelty, Marcy says.

“Different educational institutions and organizations in the Cedar Valley area as elsewhere in the country have organized summer camps for years now,” she adds. “However, these summer camps tended to be mostly about games and sports.”

Indeed, there were thematic camps at UNI and elsewhere, camps designed and developed around particular themes related to science and social studies.

“At UNI, different academic departments related to STEM would organize their own summer camps,” Marcy says. “Then, about five years ago, an initiative was taken to bring these camps under one umbrella with funding from the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).”

The EPSCoR funding expired last year but the university decided to continue with the summer camps, in large part because the camps bring a diverse group of youth to campus.

“We ask the families to pay registration fees, which is about a fourth of the cost of attending camps,” Marcy says. “Then we supplement the registration fees with grants, sponsorships, and internal funding.”

Ten camps will be organized this year, including two that are exclusively for girls. Introduction to Robotics — For Girls has been around for a while now but New Dimensions in Art and STEM with 3D Printing will make its debut this summer. This camp is designed to help the participants develop skills in 3D modeling and printing. The campers will also have the experience of printing in plastic and sand.

Lights, Action, Magic! is the other camp designed for an exclusive group of campers. The camp, which explores STEM through an understanding of magic, is for middle and high school students who have communication disorders, and learning disabilities, or are considered at-risk/low literacy learners.

Besides Introduction to Robotics — For Girls, there will be three more camps on robotics where the campers work in team to design and build robots. In the Ultimate Sumo Robotics camp, the campers put together fighting sumo robots for a battle of power and wits in the ring.

Camp Multimedia and Mastering Multiplayers are two camps that gamers would love to be part of; the first one also helps campers develop their skills in 3D design and printing as well as photo and video for social media.

Last but not least, Exploring the Tallgrass Prairie is a camp where participants visit UNI’s prairie preserves to learn about plants and animals, and then create sketches and other art while at renewabLE Energy is Good, the campers learn about renewable energy, circuits, generators, and motors using solar panels, wind tunnels, and turbines. (For further details about the camps and registration, visit https://camps.uni.edu/).

Each camp is directed by a member of the UNI community with relevant expertise and experience. The campers also have access to UNI resources and facilities.

“The resources and facilities that the campers have access to are generally not used during summer,” says Marcy. “So, their use for the camp makes a lot of sense in terms of their optimal use and also showcases to the members of the community the facilities UNI has to offer.”

Many of the camp counsellors are students. Also, every summer, the UNI STEM Office recruits a student to assist the UNI STEM Coordinator and the camp directors with the operation of the camps.

“The work for the summer camps adds not only to their UNI experience but also to their resume,” Marcy points out.

The community response to the summer camps has been generally very positive, she says. “These summer camps, as I said earlier, do offer an option for the parents as they plan the long break ahead for their middle and high school going children.”


Posted: 04-26-17

Blending the creative with the technical


Her journey into the world of architecture began in the mid-1980s. Out of high school, done with pre-university courses in biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics, and ready for undergraduate studies, she felt architecture could be the best fit for her.

“I loved to sketch and visualize spaces that came with the architectural design, was comfortable with the math and science of the building technology that I would encounter, and loved the intersection with the social sciences, that is, the sociology and psychology behind the design of spaces,” recalls Dr. Gowri Betrabet Gulwadi, Professor of Interior Design at the School of Applied Human Sciences in the University of Northern Iowa.

“To me, it seemed a wonderful blend of everything I enjoyed, and a great blend of the creative and the technical,” she adds.

So, Bachelor of Architecture it was, at the University Visweswaraya College of Engineering in Bangalore, India; she graduated in 1991. Two years later, she got enrolled in the doctoral program in Architecture: Environment-Behavior Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. During her doctoral work, “inspired by colleagues who were following that path,” she decided that she would take up teaching as a career.

“I had not considered teaching [as a career] although, from a young age, I felt comfortable and enjoyed it whenever I shared information or explained a concept to others around me,” Dr. Gulwadi says.

Her professors, both at the University Visweswaraya College of Engineering and the University of Wisconsin, helped her become better at this sharing of information and explaining of different concepts, she says.

“Some of them pushed me to do my very best, asking me deep and thoughtful questions, and always asking me to do more and be more,” she adds. “Others inspired me by the way they organized their thoughts and actions in academia. I learned a lot through observation and assimilation.”

She began teaching at the University of Wisconsin as a teaching assistant and then worked at the Illinois Institute of Art in Schaumburg as an instructor before joining the University of Northern Iowa as an assistant professor in July 2003.

“At UNI, I deeply appreciate my welcoming colleagues, the helpful staff, and my hard-working and eager-to-learn students,” she says. “UNI has provided me with so many opportunities to be a better teacher, researcher, and colleague. I like to give back in multiple ways whenever I get a chance because it is a warm, kind, and enjoyable community.”

 Professor Gulwadi has always been interested “in designing humane environments responsive to diverse needs.” For example, one of her ongoing research projects, in which she is working with Professor Kathleen Scholl of the School of Kinesiology, Allied Health and Human Services at UNI, explores how students experience green spaces on UNI campus.

“This study presents findings from a data analysis of reflective journal entries in one of my design classes and one of Professor Scholl’s Leisure Studies classes,” she explains. “We taught our different classes using the same textbook.”

The other project that she is currently involved in “examines links between student well-being and access to university green spaces.” Dr. George Hallowell of North Carolina State University, Raleigh, Dr. Evrim Mishchenko of Mersin University, Mersin, Turkey, and Dr. Susana Alves of Okan Universitesi, Istanbul, Turkey are also on the project.

“It is a sequel to a previous study in which results indicate that those with higher perceived campus greenness report greater quality of life, a pathway significantly and partially mediated by perceived campus restorativeness,” Dr. Gulwadi explains.

With Dr. Mishchenko and Dr. Alves, she is also working on “an archival analysis of empirical articles to determine cultural aspects of studying nature”; their work is currently being prepared for publication.

At the same time, she is a reader for two doctoral students in Allied Health, Recreation and Community services working on the “effects of nitrites on health indicators,” and a member of the thesis committee of a Leisure, Youth and Human Services graduate student working on “the connections between nature experiences and stress.”

“In interior design, we do not have a graduate program, but I currently am working with undergraduate students who are designing conceptual options for the Alumni House after conducting a series of interviews and background research,” she says. 

Professor Gulwadi has also served on the board of directors at the Environmental Design Research Association and the Sustainability Action Committee, and remains a “committed volunteer.”

Over the years, she has seen with great satisfaction UNI’s advances in sustainable design.

“We infused it into the interior design curriculum starting in 2004,” she says. “Today, it is very good to see that sustainability is one of our core values in the university’s strategic plan, and we have an Office of Sustainability.”

“Our campus has been at the forefront in Iowa,” she adds. “For example, the CEEE Building was the first ‘green’ building in Iowa, built before Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) was in existence, and decades before we earned our first LEED certification for Sabin Hall.”

“Building on such successes, earnest efforts continue to be launched here at UNI in many facets of campus life, campus design, operations, and maintenance, and our curriculum (we have a Certificate in Sustainability),” she continues. “However, we need to continue our current momentum, educate everyone about the sustainable aspects, and draw attention to how those aspects can make a difference.”

One of Professor Gulwadi’s advices to would-be architecture/interior design majors is: “Be observant.”

“Be observant in the spaces you live, work, and play in – how are they enabling your intended activities, how can they do better?” she says. “Follow trends in architecture and design by reading articles in periodicals such as Architect, Architectural Record, Metropolis, Interior Design, Contract Design, Hospitality Design, etc.”

“Shadow a designer or an architect to find out what they do,” she adds. “Contact a family member or friend who may have just gone through a design process with an architect or a designer, and find out what decisions were made and how.  Sign up for a summer camp in your area that explores design aspects.”

And, Professor Gulwadi points out, architecture/interiors design is a STEM field.

“Architecture/interior design is a wonderful blend of creative, technical, and humanistic aspects,” she says. “For example, when designing safe, secure, accessible, and comfortable spaces for people, we use math to determine how big, wide, and tall the spaces need to be, apply scientific concepts to understand how light and sound travel through the spaces so we can harness their potential, and use technology to communicate with our clients, colleague in the trades, and to convert our visions to reality.”

“Weaving together all these aspects with budgetary constraints and possibilities, and social and legal responsibilities, is a very interesting challenge, and feels like solving a puzzle with moving parts,” she adds.


Posted: 04-04-17

The happy biology major


Michael Lashbrook is happy “looking towards future.” He is happy “living every day.” In fact, he has never been happier. It’s all mostly because of his biology major.

Michael or MJ, as he is known to his friends, has always wanted to study natural sciences in college. “I have always loved science,” he says.

So, the decision to major in biology ultimately came down to how interested he was in it. “Biology is such a diverse topic that it stood out to me most,” he adds.

The decision to enroll in the University of Northern Iowa was simple, too.

“It is very close to my hometown,” he explains. “It felt right from the moment I visited it first. The campus and the people here are so welcoming that there was no question in my mind of going anywhere else.

UNI it will be for him till he gets his master’s degree. He then plans to go on and get a Ph.D., and become a research professor. “Hopefully somewhere tropical,” he adds.

MJ has found the experience at UNI amazing.

“I have learned and grown not only academically but also as a person,” he says. “The coursework has been challenging in the best way. Professors try especially to focus on higher order thinking, which will definitely help in the future.”

The professors have also made the classroom experience both exciting and exhilarating. So, when it comes to choosing his favorite class so far, he finds it a three-way tie between Oral Communication, General Chemistry, and Ecology, Evolution, and the Nature of Science.

“In the first two, I had such great professors that their classes stand out,” he says. “In the Eco-Evo class, I had an awesome professor plus the content was engaging, interesting, and downright fun.”

MJ is currently working on a research project on nitrogen use efficiency in tallgrass prairie feedstocks. “We are observing this efficiency in different forms by studying specific leaf areas, leaf area indexes, and how much biomass is produced,” he explains.

He is also working on a research paper “reviewing hypotheses for the adaptive radiation of scleractinian corals.”

His weekdays are quite hectic.

“I am an undergraduate research assistant, a student assistant/TA for Chemistry, and a lab tech for the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry,” he says. “I’m also tutoring General Biology: Organismal Diversity this semester as an on-campus job.”

So, free time is very hard to come by but when it does, MJ tries to catch up on sleep. “Usually unsuccessfully,” he adds.

He has also been involved in volunteer work. “In the past, I volunteered at Waverly hospital,” he says. “The most recent work was volunteering for the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry’s Halloween House event.”

MJ has recently become a STEM Ambassador.

“It was the suggestion of a professor, and the idea of getting to share my passion for science,” he says. “I think being a STEM Ambassador will be the perfect opportunity to get others excited about STEM fields.”

MJ believes students interested to be a STEM major should go for it. “If you’re interested, talk to anyone you can,” he says. “And try a little bit of everything when it comes to STEM and see what fits you best.”


Posted: 03-22-17

UNI STEM Seeking Graduate Assistant

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UNI STEM is seeking a Graduate Assistant for the 2017-2018 academic year.  The UNI STEM GA writes weekly stories about STEM Events, activities and people on campus and maintains social media accounts.  See position descrption for more info.  Apply by March 27th.

Marcy Seavey, UNI STEM Coordinator
Posted: 03-21-17

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