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Science students, faculty and alumni gather for symposium

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NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – During this year’s Fall Festival, Bethel College science faculty and alumni organized the first-ever STEM Symposium on campus.

STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, a grouping used by the U.S. National Science Foundation to describe key fields of study and research in an advanced technological society like the United States. At Bethel, STEM covers biology, chemistry, computer science, mathematics, pre-engineering, physics and psychology.

For the past number of years, the Fall Festival program has included one or two lectures by Bethel alumni who have excelled in a STEM area. But only for the past year has Bethel had a STEM Advisory Council, 15 Bethel graduates in STEM fields who are committed to supporting and strengthening Bethel’s programs in the sciences.

Bethel faculty, consulting with Advisory Council chair Dale Horst of Goessel and some other members, decided to plan a full-day symposium this year for several reasons, said Dwight Krehbiel, professor of psychology. He and Professor of Chemistry Richard Zerger were primarily responsible for organizing the symposium.

The main reason is the students, Krehbiel said. “We need more opportunities for our students to come in contact with alumni, to see some role models [in their major fields].”

Bethel science faculty encouraged student attendance at the symposium by cancelling classes on that day, Friday, Oct. 5, and offering extra credit for attendance.

According to a rough estimate done by Professor of Psychology Paul Lewis, the two morning lectures had attendance of 150-160, about half of them students, with around 120 afternoon attenders, about a third of them students.

Another reason for having a symposium, Krehbiel said, is to honor faculty members in the sciences who have retired in the past several years or will be retiring in the near future.

“The first STEM Symposium was held in honor of professor emeritus of mathematics Arnold M. Wedel,” said Jon Piper, professor of biology. Speakers and topics were chosen to be of particular interest to Wedel’s former students and colleagues, although Piper also pointed out that the four speakers were specifically asked to tailor their presentations to “a broad student audience.”

The intention is for the STEM Symposium to be an annual event during Fall Festival, Piper said, “to honor Bethel scholars who have gone before us, to build new bridges between alumni and the college and to provide networking opportunities for current students looking for internships and careers after graduation.”

The first STEM Symposium lecture was by Frank Morgan, Webster Atwell Professor of Mathematics at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., and a colleague of Bethel’s Young Alumnus Award winner for 2007, Susan Loepp. The other three lectures were by Bethel alumni: Dan Flickinger, a linguist on the faculty at Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif.; Jaroslav Tir, associate professor in the Department of International Affairs at the University of Georgia, Athens; and Andrew Rich, professor of mathematics at Manchester College, North Manchester, Ind. All three are Bethel mathematics graduates.

“I was very pleased with the symposium as a whole,” Krehbiel said. “The speakers were all quite engaging and seemed to be well received. There was lots of animated conversation at the breaks. I received numerous favorable comments from students and others who attended.”

The event was so successful that the STEM Advisory Council agreed it should happen annually. “The Advisory Council, which met [the day after the symposium], strongly affirmed the symposium idea. With their advice, we are working on a similar event for next year,” Krehbiel said.

“We will strive for more contact between speakers and students, perhaps through informal discussion sessions,” he continued, “and we hope to attract speakers as engaging as the ones we had this year. We will not be focusing on mathematical topics next year, but audience accessibility will continue to be a high priority. Keeping in touch with our alumni, highlighting alumni achievements and building alumni-student relationships are primary goals.”

Bethel College is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. Founded in 1887, it is the oldest Mennonite college in North America. Bethel is known for its academic excellence and was the highest ranked Kansas college in the national liberal arts category of U.S. News & World Report’s listing of “America’s Best Colleges” for 2008. For more information, see the Bethel Web site at www.bethelks.edu.

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