By SCARLET SIMS
LOG CABIN STAFF WRITER
LITTLE ROCK — Mishal Benson, a senior at the University of Central Arkansas, stood next to a large poster displaying her research on developing better ways to teach physics to schoolchildren. Her "computer coaches" for physics problems could help teachers instruct students, but more important to Benson, it might help instill a love of science in schoolchildren, she said.
"Maybe they will get more interested in STEM," Benson said.
For years, Arkansas educators and leaders have been trying to increase the number of students who are interested in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics and who get degrees in those fields. On Wednesday, Benson was among nine UCA students and more than 90 university and college students who presented their work to legislators, other researchers and regular people interested in research happening statewide. Students came from 14 different colleges — public and private — for the "STEM Posters at the Capitol," the second such event that UCA has lead in organizing.
"This is really important for the students that legislators understand what our students are doing," said Steve Runge, interim provost. "We’re all interested in this (event) because we all want to improve STEM education in the state and economic development in the state in terms of high-tech industry."
Runge is also chairman of the Arkansas Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) Coalition, which is a "statewide partnership of leaders from the corporate, education, government and community sectors," according to the group’s website.
The Posters event is an opportunity for students to tell lawmakers about the "quality and value" of research experiences at Hendrix, said Robert L. Entzminger, provost and dean at Hendrix College, in email. But universities often work together to advance research, said Patrick Desrochers, a UCA chemistry professor and lead event organizer.
"It’s both public and private," he said.
The event showcased what Arkansas institutions and students do in math and science research, Desrochers said. Just getting the word out could help Arkansas keep talented students in the state and attract them to STEM fields, he said. The event, similar to what other state’s hold, is more than a "science fair," Desrochers said. Some work students presented Wednesday is published in journals. Students solve real world problems, he said.
"People should care," Desrochers said. "People should know that there is plenty of good news about the education in the state."
For example, Padma Mana, a sophomore at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, said she is researching proteins that signal for cell growth. That mechanism could hold the key for stopping cancer, she said.
A few feet away from Mana, Ryan Rogers, a UCA junior, told people about "molecular tweezers" that could mean cleaner medication and easier, cheaper recycling. The technology of attaching plastic to a scorpionate may be new enough to patent, he said.
"The research is a big deal to me," Rogers said.
At the capitol, people snapped photos of students in front of their posters with iPads and phones. Legislators, dressed in pressed suits, listened to explanations about green energy technology, possible cancer treatments and beetles. Students became excited when officials, including Gov. Mike Beebe, stopped briefly to ask them about their research.
By noon, hundreds of people had come through the capitol.
"It’s amazing what our universities are doing," Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, said over the den of voices echoing off the marble in the rotunda. "As a legislator, it’s important to know these programs exist."
Desrochers said Posters is meant to encourage and interest students of all ages. Near the cookies, 14-year-old Shurn Dunn asked questions about a poster detailing injuries that can cause kidney failure. He said he was at the capitol with his class as part of a trip.
Desrochers said Posters is meant, not just to tell the public about research, but to spark the will to learn science in younger students, like Dunn.
"If we don’t ever show anybody, then there’s not much point," Desrochers said.