Friday, February 3, 2017

UW Fostering Diversity in STEM Fields

After a semester of working as the communications intern for Wyoming EPSCoR, it has been brought to my attention the underrepresentation of minority groups in STEM fields. As a female, and more importantly as a writer, it is important to me that we bring together people with diverse backgrounds. Although science is objective, it is also inherently human. We all perceive and observe the world differently and when we invite different viewpoints to the conversation we are more likely to innovate and develop the STEM fields.

On Wednesday morning, I was assigned the task of covering the Diversity in STEM presentation. This immediately brightened my day, it's always a treat to step out of the office to interact with students and faculty. The talk was part of a series of events happening during the week in correspondence with the MLK Days of Dialogue .

Teddi Hofmann, the K-14 Project Coordinator for UW's College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS), led the program. One of the first statistics Hofmann presented was, CEAS currently has a female enrollment rate of 18%, which is close to the national average. I was shocked to learn this fact, but at the same time I was intrigued to see how we might go about solving this problem.

After talking with minority students at UW, Hofmann found part of the problem with fostering diversity in STEM fields was students had trouble finding good mentors within their fields of study. To combat this issue, Hofmann announced the launch of a new CEAS mentorship program for females. Starting in the Fall of 2017 female students will be paired with alumni mentors. These mentors will offer support and guidance to students in both their personal and professional lives. There will be one on one meetings as well as group meetings to enhance a sense of community.

The pilot program will begin on a small scale, with about 5 student/alumni pairs. Teddi is hopeful that if other colleges see the mentorship program that CEAS is implementing, that they will be inspired to start their own. The SWE is also beginning to develop a mentorship program between K-12 students and undergraduate/graduate students here at UW. Many younger female students are interested in science and math, but loose interest as they enter middle school or high school. The SWE mentorship program would offer a place for girls to build interest in STEM fields and to see the opportunities available in higher education.

Along with these mentorship programs, I was thrilled to discover all of the current organizations on campus that support minority students. These communities play a critical role in diversifying the STEM fields because they offer a place for students voices to be heard. Student leaders from Multicultural Association of Student Scientists (MASS), Society of Women Engineers (SWE), National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), and Women in Math, Science, and Engineering (WiMSE) presented at the event. All of the groups are working on career development, outreach programs, and social activities that allow for the success of minority students.

The theme for this years MLK Days of Dialogue was the Fierce Urgency of Now. The presentation highlighted this by focusing on the developments we are already seeing here on campus, as well as a bright vision for the future. It was inspiring to see the students who spoke as representatives for their organization, because you could see how these groups had positively impacted their experience here at UW. While the statistics regarding diversity in STEM may seem disheartening, I realized it is not only about the numbers. It is about the people who are working to improve our communities. The heart of the solution is listening to their stories, so their experiences may be validated and heard.

Photos: 1, 2

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Let it Snow!

The semester is over, grades submitted, conferences attended and talks given. WyCEHG students are scattered across the globe, yet data must be collected. My role on the project relates to communicating the science, organizing and delivering outreach, rarely does it include adventures in the snow. Today, however, was a day to play.

Programs at the No Name site needed to be updated, one instrument was not communicating data to another, and it was snowing. The snow was encouragement enough for me that when the invite came to participate, I eagerly accepted my job – umbrella holder.  Up the trail I tromped behind my colleague ET, golf umbrella in hand and a pair of snowshoes on my feet. Wind-swirled flakes cut across our path as we ascended from the Green Rock parking lot.

Upon arrival at the station, we quickly stomped down the snow surrounding a near-by fallen tree to set up the computer and various additional pieces of equipment. It was a bit like I imagine the Hubble engineers to have done on their missions to fix their scope – heading off to territories unknown to fix instruments and allow a better eye on places unseen. My job was to quickly gather snow-depth from specific points around the station, all of which showed 70-80 cm of coverage and then protect the computer from precipitation.

ET opened the laptop and connected it to the station. The screen displayed a circling blue ball and read “Performing Updates, Do Not Turn Off.”  We looked at one another and considered our options, restart and revert, go snowshoe around a bit, shout, or wait. We chose to wait. Unfortunately technology was more patient than we were, and never did finish updating.

One of the takeaways from my day, aside from snow angles and trekking around a beautiful place with a wonderful individual is that, this is the nature of science and technology. Sometimes experimentation and data collection works in our favor. But other times it challenges us to go play and come back another day. We will return, computer updated and umbrella at the ready. Until then, let it snow… let it snow… let it snow!!

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

“Hey Now, do you want to play a game?” The robot’s eyes flash red to indicate it understands the question raised by the blonde haired smiling girl standing before it.

“Yes, what game would you like to play?” came Now’s response, to the delight of the group of children encircling the machine. Engaging with Now was just one of the many activities students engaged in during the chilly December Computer Science and Engineering day at the University of Wyoming. This event was held in partnership with the nation-wide hour of code, celebrating computer science and its application and came on the heels of Governor Matt Mead’s proclamation that December 5-11 would be Computer Science Education week.

Vice President for Research, Bill Gern, spoke to approximately 50 students and their parents about becoming engineers, the practical and fun applications of such careers and opportunities that await students here at the University should they come in the future. He shared tales of his own children pursuing computer science and the cool opportunities available to them now, as adults. 

An important element of the event was diversity. Students traveled among six different stations in which they experienced how code and computer science informs art while painting by code, ecology while testing water and light of plants through Arduino technology, developing and deploying secret messaging through code, moving robots by using brain waves, as well as the more traditional robotics activities.

Students came from across southwest Wyoming to participate. In addition to the coding activities, participants and their families attended a University of Wyoming men’s basketball game and watched the Cowboys defeat Montana’s Grizz.  

We offer many thanks to the professors, undergraduates, and graduate students who donated their time and enthusiasm with students! 

Monday, December 5, 2016

Student Gets Ready to 'Rock' the AGU Conference

 After a semester of hard work University of Wyoming geology students have the opportunity to present their research at the AGU Conference in San Francisco December 12th - 16th. This is the largest worldwide conference in the geophysical sciences that brings together scientists, educators, and students. One UW student that will be presenting her research at the conference will be Casey McGuffy.

McGuffy, a New Jersey native, came to Wyoming after an undergraduate professor recommended she attend UW for her masters degree in geophysics. She became interested in geology due to her love of the outdoors.

Casey McGuffy working this summer in Jemez, N.M. 
McGuffy's research is focused on bedrock weathering at two mountain watersheds. Her first site is the Jemez Critical Zone, New Mexico and the Reynolds Creek Critical Zone, Idaho.

"The Critical Zone is a near-surface layer of the Earth that supports terrestrial life. This layer includes the bed rock up to the tops of the trees. So it is not only studied by geologists, but ecologists and soil scientists are also involved," McGuffy explains.

The Critical Zone site in Jemez, N.M. 

Over the summer McGuffy worked at the Jemez site, but she was unable to see the Reynolds Creek location. She used data collected by other colleagues from the Idaho site to contribute to her research project. McGuffy studied the thickness of regolith, the layer of soil, saprolite, and underlying weathered bedrock, to determine differences in weathering. The two zones have similar climates and ecosystems allowing for comparisons.

McGuffy found that the primary differences between weathering along the rock profiles were due to slope aspect. It was also noted that seismic profiles between the two sites lead to variations in weathering due to the different rock types.

Previously McGuffy had her undergraduate research presented for her at the conference, but this will be her first year attending. The AGU conference is also an occasion that is great for professional networking. As McGuffy finishes her masters degree, she wishes to create connections that could lead to possible career opportunities.

"I look forward to seeing other peoples research, talking with people about it, and attending different key note speeches," McGuffy adds.

We wish Casey good luck on her research presentation and all of her future endeavors. She is sure to 'rock' the field of geophysics.

Jemez, N.M. 

Friday, November 11, 2016

Diving into Groundwater Research

This August, WyCEHG welcomed a new scientist onto their team, Dr. Kevin Befus. Dr. Befus works in the Civil and Architectural Engineering Department as a groundwater hydrologist.

Before coming to Laramie, Dr. Befus received his PhD from the University of Texas, Austin and went on to serve as a U. S. Geological Survey Mendenhall Research Fellow in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Dr. Befus's research is focused on how groundwater interacts with conditions at the Earth's surface.

"Groundwater is what I'm curious about. How does it affect everything else?" Dr. Befus said.

Groundwater acts as long term reservoir for water, but it does change over time. Dr. Befus is interested in how human uses are affecting the sustainability of the resource and how this in turn may affect system ecology, chemistry, and weathering of bedrock.

"Groundwater is a huge resource for producing food and our populations water. Over half of Laramie's water comes from groundwater. It acts as underground storage and a natural filtration system," Dr. Befus said.

Dr. Befus became interested in hydrology during college. After changing his major to geology, he went to Honduras to help install water systems. "It was a humanitarian extrapolation of what hydrology can do," Dr. Befus explained.

Dr. Befus also enjoys working in the field, and has experience working in Wyoming's natural habitat. As a graduate student he worked in the Bighorn mountains studying their geological background and structure.

"Research is a different way to enjoy nature. It's like hiking except you are learning more about nature in the process, there's an additional purpose behind it," Dr. Befus said.

As his research begins Dr. Befus is looking for graduate and PhD students to work as a part of his Water Hydrology Group.

"We will possibly have 3 students for the start of 2017. They'd work on projects ranging from mountain hydrology, and potentially groundwater connections to other surface water and reservoirs," Dr. Befus said.

This is the first time Dr. Befus has been a part of an engineering program. In the future he would like to be involved with the Engineers without Boarders program and would act as a faculty mentor.

"Engineering is the applied aspect of science. It's science that can lead to better problem solving and designing," Dr. Befus said.

While Dr. Befus thinks understanding nature itself is satisfying, he also emphasizes the importance of the application of science to local communities.  He looks forward to contributing to outreach efforts within the University community and on the Wind River Reservation.

"Communicating about science is important because it shows the value of science and how it can affect day to day life. It helps get people excited. Not everyone is going to be a water nerd like me," Dr. Befus said.

We are excited that Dr. Befus has joined the WYCHEG team and can't wait to see what he has to contribute.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Ecology meets Technology

On June 21, 2016 girls from Laramie's Girl Scout troop participated in a Summer Coding Camp sponsored by the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute and Wyoming EPSCoR. The camp lasted for 3 days and took place at the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center.  The nine participants were anywhere from 10-15 years old.

The course focused on concepts from both ecology and computer science to help solve real world problems. Brian Barber from the Biodiversity and Institute and Liz Nysson worked on developing the curriculum for the course.

To begin, the girls were introduced to some of the basic background of botany. Then they began to learn python coding, a type of coding typically used for beginners.

The python coding was then applied to Raspberry pi computers. These small computers are about the size of a credit card and can be used with a standard computer monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

"They learned basic programs and set up the circuit.  One of the firsts tasks they were assigned was to make a blinking light," Barber said.

The Arduino board was another piece of technology used for the girl's project. The board is a sensor that can be used for a variety of projects. It has the ability to detect movement, water levels, and Ph levels.

The girls used the Raspberry pi computers and the Arduino board to create a sensor they could put into a houseplant. The sensor could track the well-being of the plant and could alert the girls when it needed more water.

"It actually had a function and they applied it to a real world problem," Barber said. After the camp the girls were also allowed to keep what they had made.

While ecology and computer science may seem like to two completely different subjects, they are both essential parts of scientific research.

"Technology and computers drive a lot of our research. It requires computational power, you can't analyze the data any other way, and some of it is so specialized," Barber said.

It is also critical that coding programs such as this one are targeting younger girls. This because research has shown that once girls leave the STEM fields, they usually don't return to them at older ages. This early engagement can help foster interest in these fields and will eventually lead to more women in science

"It's empowering. They can think I did this myself, now I have the courage to try something else even greater," Barber said.

Barber and other outreach coordinators are looking forward to see how they can expand this program. Some future program ideas include focusing a coding workshop for adults and connecting this coding to Citizen Science projects.

Friday, October 28, 2016

WyCEHG Voices of the River

Learn how one University of Wyoming student conducts research that reimagines the science behind water in the Mountain West.