What is an extraordinary science community?

What is an extraordinary science community? This is one of the questions that I, along with a number of creative educators and researchers, am asking as we create the bi-annual Cultivating Ensembles in STEM Education and Research (CESTEMER) conference. The conference theme this year is Cultivating Extraordinary Science Communities: Re-imagining Arts, Humanities and STEM.

Over the next few months, I'll introduce you to groups that are creating answers to this question. These groups are re-imagining how we think about and do science. One of my favorites is the Mathematical Theoretical Biology Institute (MTBI). MTBI is a summer research experience for undergraduates co-directed by Anuj Mubayi and MTBI founder, Carlos Castillo Chavez, who is also the director of the Simon A. Levin Mathematical Computational Modeling Sciences Center at ASU.

 Together with dedicated faculty from around the globe and the students, Carlos creates a community that is a collaborative research environment. This environment (a complex relationship of faculty, graduate students and the undergraduate participants) relates to yet undifferentiated students as capable of being great researchers. The students are given the training in technical concepts and applications that great researchers use. They work side-by-side with peers as well as students and faculty ahead of them in the field.  In eight weeks, the participants of MTBI develop research projects that are submitted as abstracts to the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS). Their projects have been through rigorous development and critique by a committee of faculty and are near completion as potential journal paper submissions.

Why is this an extraordinary science community? It's ordinary for researchers to seek to engage next-generation scientists, mathematicians or engineers in their field. And it is common for them to make the assumption that they need to attract already accomplished students. They also assume that it is impossible for everyone to learn if members of the group have different skill and experience levels. Yet, at MTBI the groups are intentionally heterogeneous in backgrounds and accomplishments. The MTBI groups work across skill levels. This maximizes participants’  ability to be curious, inspired and undeterred by  what may seem impossible. The students are often from open-enrollment colleges. Faculty and graduate student mentors are asked to work alongside the students as co-creators of the research.

What's extraordinary, perhaps, is that at MTBI everyone grows. The young people develop as researchers. The faculty and graduate students develop their expertise in teaching, mentoring and new topics of research. They make use of their rich experience to support the development of the group, the community. And, fortunately for all of us, our scientific and mathematical fields develop, too.

The research by faculty and summer students include community resilience, population ecology, social dynamics, and disease models. The technical reports of MTBI students can be found on the MCMSC site here.

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