What does $110 million — the largest private donation in California State University history — actually pay for? For four liberal studies students, it paid for two radio antennae and the chance to listen to storms on Jupiter.
The four seniors, Carly Muller, Aileen Saucedo, Sarah Coyle and Sara Bettencourt, are among the first recipients of the Frost Fund, established by Bill and Linda Frost in 2017 to support undergraduate research in the College of Science and Mathematics. The grant paid for a Radio JOVE Telescope Kit from NASA, which the group used to conduct research under with the guidance of physics professor David Mitchell.
The four women, who all hope to become school teachers in the future, applied for the grant and were chosen based off of their strong applications and career goals, according to Mitchell. For the first portion of their senior project, they spent the summer conducting research with the antennae they built themselves. The antennae were used for listening to storms on Jupiter as well as the sun by converting radio waves into sound waves.
After about a dozen nights of unsuccessful listening at the on-campus arboretum, a few of the students heard a storm on Jupiter for the first time.
“It was so awesome,” Coyle said. “I didn’t even realize it was happening until it was over, but for about 20 seconds, it sounded like pebbles falling. We were like, ‘Oh wait, that was just a storm!’”
The project, in part, is meant to instill more hands-on research and scientific experience before the students go on to be elementary school teachers. Most of the students have STEM concentrations within liberal studies and hope to go on to credential programs after graduation.
The research provided an experience that lectures could never have given, Muller said.
“Being a liberal studies major, I never really expected to be able to have a research opportunity, so already I feel like I’ve gained experience I didn’t think I would in this major,” Muller said.
Mitchell said the researchers were enthusiastic and ready to learn throughout the project. He explained that this was a transformative experience for him, as he aims to make an impact on the future scientists of the world.
“Teaching elementary school is the most important job in the world. No one has more of an effect on society than the people who teach children,” Mitchell said. “I feel like I can have a bigger impact on the world by helping train teachers to be better because then they teach hundreds and hundreds of students.”
Liberal studies professor Anne Marie Bergen has been instrumental with the women’s senior project. She emphasized the importance of allowing them to gain real-life experience in science before going on to get their multiple subject teaching credentials.
“One of the biggest issues for our elementary teachers in particular is the confidence and competence in the areas of science and math — this whole idea of STEM,” Bergen said. “So our students are really getting a chance to grapple with that before they even leave their undergraduate time.”
Through connecting students and content, the professors hope to model how the liberal studies students can inspire the scientists of tomorrow.
The next step in the senior project is drafting curriculum for a local elementary school to use the antennae with their students.
San Benito Elementary School in Atascadero was chosen for the project because it is a local, STEM-focused school. Mitchell, who said a majority of his students are typically liberal studies students rather than physics students, emphasized how important it is for future teachers to be taught science in exciting, applicable ways.
“I think it is an issue that a lot of elementary school teachers don’t have really good experiences in their science classes when they’re growing up and so the classes just aren’t interesting or engaging,” Mitchell said. “And so the result, when they go out to teach science in their classrooms is that they either don’t like science or they’re intimidated by it, so they’re afraid to teach it … So making it engaging and teaching it in a way that models how they should be teaching it in their classrooms, I mean, that’s just as important as the content in the classes we teach.”
While the planning for the curriculum has begun, the bulk of the second part of their senior project will be done in Winter 2019. The liberal studies students are planning to transport the antennae to San Benito in January.
The seniors examined the new current standards for education in California and decided the curriculum for first and fourth grades would match well with their project. The emphasis on the general concept of waves, specifically, fit with the curriculum of the two grades.
Kathryn Holmes, principal of San Benito Elementary and Cal Poly alumnus, said she is excited to implement Learn by Doing with her students, their families and her staff members.
“Inherently, elementary kids are scientists through and through,” Holmes said. “This is an opportunity for [the Cal Poly students] to learn the pedagogies and the science behind teaching from our teachers, as well. It’s a really great partnership for them to learn balance and learn the love of science and the joy of science through an elementary scope.”
Muller, Coyle, Bettencourt and Saucedo hope to have the elementary students do a simple project that will mimic the antennae to reinforce the concepts. They shared that Mitchell did something similar with the four of them, asking them to make a circuit out of Play-Doh before building the actual circuit boards.
Although they are in the early stages of the curriculum planning for San Benito, Bergen joked that one of the women may be placed there in a few years as a student teacher. Muller laughed that that would be amazing, along with seeing the project live on past this year.
To learn about other College of Science and Mathematics undergraduate research projects, visit the site here.