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Rensselaer Gets Grant To Apply Science and Tech Research to Civic Problems

Grant money will be helping graduate students from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute turn into "civic scientists"--researchers who apply their science and engineering backgrounds on community-based problems. As part of the project, the faculty member in charge of the initiative hopes to show minority students how science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education is relevant to their own lives.

Rensselaer Science and Technology Studies Professor Ron Eglash has received a five-year, $2.9 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to support development of "The Triple Helix" project. The money will fund up to eight graduate fellows to focus on issues related to health, the environment, poverty, crime, and information access within the Albany, NY region. The institute is located in Troy, about 11 miles from the state capital. In fall 2010 the researchers will be placed in a collaborative teaching program with local middle schools serving low-income and minority communities in the Albany region.

The project is called "Triple Helix," according to Eglash, to represent how three domains--universities, K-12, and community--need to be connected and mutually supportive in order to engage what he calls "disenfranchised students." "And just as real DNA is self-replicating, we like to think that this approach could be replicated elsewhere," he said.

The grant also includes funding for community activists who work in the areas of AIDS/HIV awareness, environmentalism, health, poverty, housing, and others, to serve as advisers to the researchers.

"As we move forward with this project, our activities will instill graduate STEM fellows with a greater awareness of the connections between their research disciplines and pressing social issues, and provide them with the training to communicate these connections to the public," Eglash said.

The researchers' top priority is to collaborate with the middle school teachers in developing STEM lessons and to participate in the teaching. The second priority will be to bring teachers into Rensselaer to work in a lab for a few days over the summer. The third priority is to meet with community activists and Science and Technology Studies grads to think about how the STEM research might be applied to some of the community problems or resources."

The grant also includes an international component. Eglash, some of the graduate students, and faculty involved in the project will travel to Kumasi, Ghana, to see how the approach might be used in a developing country.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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