Richard J. Sinclair: TAMS program creates innovators of the future

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Natalie Angier, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science columnist for The New York Times and bestselling author, has said, “Science is the future, science is making the future, and nations large and small are busy making future scientists.”

Science, technology, engineering and mathematics — the so-called STEM fields — drive a country’s growth, health and well-being. It’s because of people working in these fields that we have such conveniences as cars, computers and smartphones.

And they are the reason we understand the structure of DNA, which contains the biological information that makes us unique as a species and as individuals. And they are the ones helping to search for cures for cancer. 

But the U.S. is falling behind in the number of people pursuing degrees and careers in these fields.

A recent report by the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee shows that the portion of students earning bachelor’s degrees in STEM fields reached a high at 24 percent in 1985 but fell to 18 percent by 2009.

The same downward trend exists for master’s and doctoral degrees in STEM fields. And women and ethnic minority groups make up a disproportionately small number of the students earning STEM degrees. All told, this paints a troubling picture.

One important way to reverse the trend is to instill a passion for science, engineering and math in students early and to create a strong pathway for them to pursue degrees and careers in these fields.

The Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science at the University of North Texas does just that for hundreds of students each year.

We nurture academically talented students who have both the promise and the drive to become the next generation of innovators and problem-solvers.

TAMS students complete their first two years at UNT while simultaneously finishing high school.

Mentored by faculty at UNT and from around the region and nation, TAMS students tackle complex, real-world problems, working on solutions and breakthroughs in fields ranging from health care to energy consumption.

About 85 percent of TAMS students earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in STEM fields. And our graduates end up as doctors, engineers, scientists, researchers and more.

 

Hands-on experience

For students such as Kurtis Carsch, TAMS is a head start to a promising career and an opportunity to do innovative research on real problems.

Under the direction of Dr. Thomas Cundari, Regents Professor of chemistry, Kurtis developed and tested catalysts that would allow natural gas to be converted into methanol, an emerging fuel alternative and valuable raw material for industrial chemicals like ethylene, a precursor to plastics.

Because of his work, Kurtis was one of 40 finalists in the 2012 Intel Science Talent Search, a prestigious competition for young researchers that has seven Nobel Prize winners among its alumni.

Kurtis was one of nine TAMS students who made it to the Intel semifinals and is now a student at the California Institute of Technology studying chemical engineering.

In 2008, TAMS student Wen Chyan captured the top prize — a $100,000 scholarship — in the national Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology for engineering a polymer coating that could help prevent common, and sometimes deadly, bacterial infections resulting during hospital stays.

Wen is at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology majoring in chemistry and will pursue graduate school in the next year.

TAMS students repeatedly stand out in these prestigious math- and science-oriented competitions because of the mentoring and opportunities they get at UNT.

They break records, with more becoming Goldwater Scholars than students at any other Texas university. Goldwater Scholarships support college students who excel in STEM fields and are on the road to becoming the best in our nation’s scientific future.

 

A leader

Since our founding in 1987 as the nation’s first accelerated residential program of its kind, TAMS has become the go-to place for gifted students to get their start. We’re now one of only seven such programs in the U.S.

After enrolling our first class in 1988, we’ve graduated more than 3,500 students, many of whom choose to stay at UNT to earn their degree because of the strong academic and campus experience we provide.

For instance, TAMS graduate Rebecca White excelled as a student and a leader at UNT, earning her bachelor’s degree in biology and serving in our leadership organization NT40. She now works as a director for an energy company.

The TAMS student body is almost equal parts male and female, and students come from a wide breadth of ethnic, cultural and economic backgrounds — facts that I’m proud of because it shows that we’re excelling at making STEM education accessible to all.

As someone with a background in biology, physiology and medical research, I know how important good science education is and why starting early can make all the difference.

With a strong foundation from TAMS, many of our graduates distinguish themselves in their chosen fields. TAMS is an essential way that UNT is boosting STEM education for the good of Texas and its industries. We’re busy making the future.

RICHARD J. SINCLAIR is dean of the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science at the University of North Texas.


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