Appalachian’s NASA Grant with SWCC to Fund the Smoky Mountain STEM Collaborative

Published Tuesday, April 26, 2016 at 8:45 am

Appalachian State University, in partnership with Southwestern Community College, has been awarded a $1.4 million grant by NASA to fund the Smoky Mountain STEM Collaborative.

Leading the Smoky Mountain STEM Collaborative is Matt Cass, science chair at Southwestern Community College in Sylva and a two-time graduate of Appalachian. Cass is spearheading initiatives related to growing mathematics and science in the southwestern region of the state and, in particular, expanding the ability of community colleges to offer astronomy courses in order to develop more STEM majors. This project will ultimately lead to an increase in community awareness of NASA-developed science content and will improve student learning across grade levels of science and mathematics. Cass earned a bachelor’s degree in physics in 2004 and a master’s in applied physics in 2006 from the university.

Appalachian will play a key role in this project by offering a series of graduate courses designed to prepare faculty in community colleges for teaching astronomy, and will also provide summer research experiences for community college students in mathematics and physics.

Dr. Michael Briley, chair of Appalachian’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, said the department is “delighted to provide research experiences for these students. With some of the best astronomical facilities in North Carolina, students will work on topics ranging from instrument development, to understanding what the sun was like when it was young, to searching for stars that have sucked off coverings of neighboring stars. Through these projects, students will have the opportunity to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and apply it to the universe around us.”

Community college students will be mentored by Dr. René Salinas in Appalachian’s Department of Mathematical Sciences in selecting research projects and faculty facilitators, preparing their research for presentation, and adapting to the professional contexts of the STEM fields. Outreach to students also includes summer visits by middle and high school students, allowing Appalachian to connect with school districts in the southwestern part of the state.

College of Arts and Sciences Dean Tony Calamai offered his support for the project, explaining, “Appalachian State University is excited about this opportunity to partner with Southwestern Community College to successfully develop more STEM majors from a population that has been overlooked for far too long. We’re also very pleased to closely collaborate with our community college partners, many of whom are alumni of Appalachian State University, a great example of which is this grant program’s principal investigator, Mr. Matt Cass.”

The Smoky Mountain STEM Collaborative leadership also includes Vance Waggener and Tracie McLemore Salinas of Appalachian State University. Additional partners are Jackson County Public Schools, Macon County Schools, Swain County Schools, Cherokee Central Schools, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, NASA Marshall Space Center and Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute.

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