A primary goal at Meredith College is to prepare its undergraduates for professions where women are underrepresented, in keeping with its status as one of the largest women’s colleges in the United States.
Currently, women hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs in the United States. Jobs in these fields are expected to grow by 17 percent by 2018, nearly double the rate of growth in non-STEM occupations, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
For the past decade, the College has invested resources to educate women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as STEM fields. One of the most visible examples of this focus is the College’s Science and Mathematics Building, which opened for classes on January 8, 2003. As the building’s tenth anniversary approaches, faculty who teach in the building are proud of the progress made in STEM programs at Meredith.
“When I came to Meredith in 1981, I could have counted the number of majors in our program on my hands,” Professor of Biological Sciences Larry Grimes said. “Now we are approaching 200 students in our major. The previous building could not have supported the number of majors we have now.”
Grimes taught at Meredith for 20 years before the Science and Mathematics Building opened. Hunter Hall, which previously housed biology, had just three labs for biology coursework.
“One lab was for freshman biology, one was for microbiology, and everything else was taught in one lab,” Grimes recalled.
In the 80,000 square foot Science and Mathematics Building, there are nine teaching labs for biological sciences, six teaching labs for chemistry, physics and geosciences, and a Bit Lab for the study of computer science, along with research labs for each faculty member, support labs and prep labs.
The new spaces were purposefully designed to meet the needs of each discipline housed in the building. Faculty members were able to work closely with the architects to customize the teaching and research labs to support the needs of their disciplines.
“Each person was able to imagine what it would take to teach each different course – cell biology, microbiology, ecology, etc.,” said Grimes. “All the labs are multi-functional. I teach six or seven different courses in the same room because the labs are designed so that all the necessary materials are there.”
The building and the College’s increased focus on science, technology and mathematics has positioned Meredith to be a leader in STEM education opportunities for women.
Biological Sciences is now one of the most popular majors at Meredith College, and all of the programs housed in Science and Mathematics Building are growing. Since 2002, the number of students majoring in STEM programs at Meredith has increased by 25 percent. Chemistry has tripled in size in the last five years, there has been an increase in students earning mathematics teaching licensure and computer science enrollment is on an upward trajectory.
The building has also helped Meredith attract and retain well-qualified faculty members. Professor of Mathematics Jackie Dietz is one example. “I came to Meredith from NC State in 2004 for a variety of reasons, but among them was the opportunity to teach and work in the Science and Mathematics Building,” Dietz said.
Dietz says the technology that comes standard in the building’s classrooms enhances her teaching and the learning experience for students. “I teach statistics, and I use technology during every class; the computer projectors built into the classrooms make this easy and seamless,” Dietz said. “The document cameras make it possible to project a variety of other materials on the screen in addition to our laptop screens. Students sit at tables for two, making it easy for students to collaborate during class.”
Collaboration is common in the classroom, research labs and common areas in the Science and Mathematics Building. The building is designed to promote interaction between faculty members, between faculty and students, and between the students themselves.
“We don’t have to create programming to make that interaction happen,” Vice President for Academic Planning and Programs Liz Wolfinger said. “The building’s design is making that possible naturally.”
Among the building’s important features are student/faculty research labs for each faculty office. These small research labs are all designed to fit the faculty member’s discipline.
“Faculty designed the labs around their professional goals and needs,” said Professor of Biological Sciences John Mecham. “Since faculty here are student-focused, their labs were designed in the best way to support student learning and outcomes. The labs give us an intellectual space in which we can work with students.”
Wolfinger, who has been a professor of biology at Meredith since 1992, believes these research spaces are particularly important to students because “the heart of science takes place in the labs. That’s where they can really ‘do’ science.”
The benefits of this focus on hands-on research carry into the classroom.
“Students participate in the classroom in a different way because they are engaged in scientific research,” Wolfinger said.
Students aren’t the only ones who benefit from these research experiences. "The enthusiasm goes both ways. We’re just as excited as the students,” said Professor of Chemistry Walda Powell.
Collaboration is a Constant
Common areas for use by students are abundant in the Science and Mathematics Building. There are study alcoves on each wing, a sitting area on the breezeway on the second floor, and an outdoor courtyard. These common areas provide space for students to study and to work together outside of class.
“I always see students in those common areas,” said Powell, who is acting dean of the School of Natural and Mathematical Sciences. “At 7:30 a.m., I see students out there studying. It’s nice to see them working together and using the space as their own.”
Students in mathematics and computer science have access to the Computation Commons room, which serves as home base for students in these majors.
Professor of Mathematics Cammey Manning, head of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science, believes these common areas “help students in our majors identify with this building and come to see it as their home on campus.”
Wolfinger said having an atmosphere where students want to congregate “helps to build a think tank atmosphere” bringing together freshmen, sophomores and upper division students. “It lets freshman see students in the majors working out problems and having fun doing it,” Wolfinger said.
Another special space for computer science students is the Bit Lab, where students build and deconstruct computers. “Students have a dedicated space to work together, which is phenomenal for building community for students in that major,” Manning said.
Collaboration among Meredith faculty has also resulted. Prior to the opening of the Science and Mathematics Building, Meredith’s STEM programs were housed in separate buildings. Now, all the programs in the School of Natural and Mathematics are together.
The building “connected math and computer science with the other sciences,” Manning said. “If we were not in the same physical space those connections wouldn’t happen.” Manning says many more students are earning double majors in computer science or mathematics and other STEM majors.
One of many positive results of this is Meredith’s engineering dual degree program, a partnership with NC State University through which students earn a Bachelor of Arts in Chemistry or Mathematics from Meredith College, and a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical, environmental, civil, computer, electrical, industrial or mechanical engineering degree from NC State University.
Faculty members also collaborate on research and on applying for grants to support STEM programs at Meredith.
“It’s not unusual for faculty to team together on grants,” said Powell. “The faculty have tried to work together to increase grant funding so we can offer students opportunities to do more research.”
One example is a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant of more than $1 million over the past six years to support mathematics, chemistry and biological sciences students. Another example is a grant from the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation of nearly $400,000 over five years to invest in sustainability initiatives.
The College’s investment in STEM “created an atmosphere that encourages faculty to write grants for STEM efforts that have greatly benefitted students,” Wolfinger said.
Manning said the building helps to change people’s impressions of STEM at a women’s college. “Students are being trained in a state-of-the-art facility, with small class sizes, where women are not in the minority,” Manning said.
The addition of the Science and Mathematics Building has also benefitted the Meredith campus community in ways beyond the STEM programs housed in it. The building has a prominent place in campus tours for prospective students since all students take general education science and mathematics courses in the building, regardless of their majors.
The facility has also expanded Meredith’s community outreach opportunities, drawing scientists and students alike from across the region. Since 2003, Meredith has hosted the North Carolina Science and Engineering Fair, which showcases the highest level of student achievement in the state. Students from 3rd grade through 12th grade present their original science and engineering research at the fair.
Meredith’s Science and Mathematics Building serves as headquarters of the North Carolina Academy of Science, and the College has hosted the organization’s annual meeting. Other science-focused events have been held in the Science and Mathematics Building, including the State of North Carolina Undergraduate Research and Creativity Symposium in 2010. Meredith was the first private college in North Carolina to host this statewide undergraduate research conference, which attracted nearly 400 presenters.
Meredith hosted the first all-members meeting of the Ecological Research as Education Network (EREN), in June 2012. Meredith College is a founding institution of EREN, a five-year project established in 2010 with a $498,980 grant from the National Science Foundation.
Another opportunity afforded by the building is the sponsorship of middle school science camps and enrichment programs for teachers of science and math. Programs such as these help drive future enrollment at Meredith as young students experience the study of math and science, and as teachers from across the state get to work in Meredith’s state-of-the-art facility.
The building also serves as a popular location for campus-wide events including the Taste of Research showcase of summer undergraduate research projects, Academic & Career Planning’s annual networking program and Celebrating Student Achievement (CSA) Day presentations.
Events such as these stand out for Professor of Mathematics Cammey Manning. “So many of my favorite moments are repeated again and again, including watching students I’ve seen grow in incredible ways present their research on CSA Day,” said Manning.
What’s Next for STEM at Meredith?
Building on the strong foundation provided by the Science and Mathematics Building, Meredith College leaders believe STEM programs will continue to grow in the future.
Faculty and administrators are collaborating with NC State University on a National Science Foundation grant proposal to support programs that will encourage women to study STEM. The College will continue to expand the Engineering Dual Degree Program partnership with NC State as well, including the recent addition of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering options.
Meredith is also exploring the possibility of adding professional science master’s degree programs. In 2012, the College added a Pre-Health Professions Post-Baccalaureate certificate program designed to provide the coursework needed to attend graduate school in health professions such as dentistry, pharmacy, medicine and nursing. The program’s first cohort of 12 students enrolled in Fall 2012.
“These students are strong, really engaged, and excited to be part of the new program,” Wolfinger said.
The Science and Mathematics Building itself continues to help attract strong and academically engaged students and faculty to Meredith, and to prepare graduates for success.
Mecham, like many of his colleagues, believes a tour of the building is the best way to show prospective students why they should study STEM at Meredith. “If you want to develop intellectual maturity and sophistication, it helps to have a good environment for students to learn in,” said Mecham. “The building is a symbol of the potential for what a student can do at Meredith.”