Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Web Note:  The Daily Iowan has published a guest opinion by Engineering student Kasra Zarei on how philanthropy can address STEM education.

As a student in a science, technology, engineering, mathematics discipline, I sometimes find it difficult to avoid becoming jaded in the classroom. Although STEM education is key to the U.S. economic future, our nation is experiencing a crisis in STEM education because of the rising costs of undergraduate education, growing congestion in the classrooms, and rigidity in the academic system.

A plethora of empirical studies suggests that the United States is losing its competitive edge in science, mathematics, and engineering, while the rest of the world soars ahead. In addition to curriculum changes such as calling for a liberal education to augment a STEM education, we need to fundamentally redefine how we teach STEM — especially in higher education, where current weaknesses in instruction are national.

Herein lies the importance of philanthropic support. I can express my scientific curiosity and my desire for an enriching education through academic research and project-based learning — and that kind of learning has been made increasingly available to students like me because of support from donors who “get” it.

As an Iowa City native, I have seen the research community on campus become increasingly vibrant throughout the years. Philanthropic support has catalyzed cutting-edge additions, innovations, and discoveries. As an undergraduate student, I have been active in conducting research at the University of Iowa Stephen A. Wynn Institute for Vision Research. I have been the beneficiary of philanthropically sponsored grants and funding, all of which have fostered my development into the driven scientist I am today. Most recently, my UI experience has been enhanced through my fellowship with the new Latham Science Engagement Initiative in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.

Heath Ledger (as the Joker) once said, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.” In today’s academic environment, every involved member is busy, and very few are able or willing to work without pay. For instance, while the need to communicate science in a language salient for a general audience is universally considered important, the sad reality is that without the money to back the right personnel and students, the need is not fully addressed. Fortunately for me, the UI has visionary donors who understand the needs and are willing to help bridge the funding gap with their support. Because of them, I have been able to participate in sponsored programs and serve the university I love in truly meaningful ways through research, innovation, and science communication and engagement.

We must continue working to redefine the way we teach — whether in the context of STEM, or higher education in general. Philanthropy is key in resolving the crises and equipping students with the proficiencies they need to become the next generation of adept professionals.

Kasra Zarei
Class of 2017
Fellow, University of Iowa Latham Science Engagement Initiative
Student, College of Engineering, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
UI Student Employee of the Year 2015-16