CORVALLIS, Ore. -  Federal officials frequently emphasize the need for the United States to stay competitive in science and technology - and math and science students are often pointed to as the hope for the country's future.

That topic also has been on the minds of Oregon State University faculty and staff, 75 of whom met during the last week of the 2010 school year to discuss new ways to promote science, technology, engineering and math ("STEM") education at OSU.

The level of interest in STEM spurred Sherm Bloomer, dean of OSU's College of Science, and Sam Stern, dean of the College of Education, to move forward with the early steps toward creating a STEM Learning Center where faculty and staff from across the university can come together to work on research related to STEM learning.

"The STEM Center is an important part of the unique partnership between our College of Education and the College of Science," Stern said. "It is positioning OSU for leadership in STEM and cultural and linguistic diversity."

Bloomer agreed. "I'm really excited about the opportunity the center presents to pull together people from across OSU who are engaged in thinking about STEM education across the lifespan," he said. "This is an area where we have a lot of expertise and can make a real impact on the national debate about effective practices."

John Falk, the Sea Grant Professor of Free-Choice Learning in the Department of Science and Mathematics Education, has been named interim director of the center. It is Falk's role to help craft a proposal for the center's creation.

"There are a number of people across the university who are interested in research on how people learn STEM," Falk said. "The issue is historically they've been scattered, so there may be one person in physics, a couple in math, some in forestry. Nationally there is a push toward increasing STEM literacy and widening the pipeline to STEM careers. It would seem that the key to accomplishing that is better understanding of how those processes work."

OSU leaders envision the center as a place where interested faculty and staff can convene informally to collaborate, write proposals, pursue funding and learn about what people in other departments are working on in relation to STEM learning.

"It is an effort to create a physical reality to this shared interest and bridge the isolation that has occurred historically," Falk said. "There hasn't been a vehicle for bringing people together, and this is really that kind of vehicle."

While there is already a department on campus dedicated to STEM education, the center will be much more broadly focused, with an emphasis on cross-college collaboration. Possible areas of focus may include improving undergraduate education, supporting and enhancing the science and engineering pipeline at the precollege level, issues of lifelong learning - and how OSU prepares students to be lifelong science learners.

"A majority of OSU students aren't going to have careers in science," Falk said. "For many of them these will be the last science classes they take. So what should be in the last classes they take?"

Campus-wide forums will be held April 7-8, at 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., in Waldo Hall Room 400 to discuss the creation of the STEM center. Falk said he'll seek faculty input through spring term before submitting a proposal to the research office, which must approve the center. If approved, Falk hopes the center will be able to initiate significant activities beginning next fall.

"Everyone who potentially has an interest in research in STEM learning can find a place at this center to find colleagues, to collaborate on projects and potentially develop proposals and attract research money," Falk said. "The first step is to open doors, build bridges and be a convening place. It's not that there is a pre-specified list of who should participate. Ultimately it will be a matter of who is interested."

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John Falk, 541-737-1826