by Ruhee Mehta

STEM Sprints are a new series of condensed research experiences for freshmen and sophomore students that are hosted by different Wooster professors across the fields of science, technology, economics and math (STEM). For one afternoon, professors open their labs to students and teach them a few basic techniques important to their research then show how the collected data is used in their research. The intention is to give students exposure to research being conducted in Wooster — after all, “Doing science is so much better than hearing about it,” said Nick Brandley, assistant professor of biology, a key organizer for the Sprints program. Brandley highly recommends STEM Sprints to all students as an opportunity for all students to better understand the STEM research happening at Wooster. 

“STEM Sprints are inherently low-stakes,” said Brandley, “but give you a window into topics that professors have dedicated their lives to.” The program also gives students a chance to get to know professors in a more informal environment and meet and network with other STEM students interested in similar fields.

The idea first arose when Brandley attended a pedagogical conference at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. During the conference, a professor spoke about the success of the STEM Sprint initiative they had implemented at their own institution. Brandley was inspired and brought the idea back with him to Wooster.

The STEM Success Initiative (SSI) board –– made up of a variety of faculty and professors from different STEM departments –– proposed to implement STEM Sprints at Wooster in an attempt to increase a feeling of ‘belonging’ in STEM. Students who feel they don’t belong in STEM can lose confidence in their ability to learn in spite of their interest, and the STEM Sprints are one solution to help remedy that. 

The first STEM Sprint was held on Oct. 21, 2023 and was hosted by Richard Lehtinen, professor of biology. Students visited Wooster Memorial Park to catch salamanders, assess their population changes and swab them for disease. The students then returned to Wooster, where Lehtinen explained the significance and methods of analysis of the data they had collected.

When asked why he thought the STEM Sprints are valuable, Lehtinen said that he feels the STEM Sprints are an important tool to cultivate STEM interest in underclassmen. He stressed the importance of providing interested students with first-hand experience in STEM research labs. Students have the opportunity to explore different fields without having to commit to a competitive and comparatively lengthy program like Sophomore Research. 

Lehtinen said he loved hosting the STEM Sprint — taking students out into fresh air and seeing their contagious enthusiasm as they catch salamanders. Many of the students he hosted were inspired and encouraged by their experience, and Lehtinen says some of those students have since reached out to him or joined his classes. Most importantly, he said, it formed connections, whether in his research lab, with a new student in his classroom or simply in the ability to say ‘hi’ in the hallway.

 The next STEM Sprint will be a neuroscience Sprint hosted by Alfredo Zúñiga, assistant professor of neuroscience, on Feb. 16. Later STEM Sprints include two events hosted by the departments of environmental studies and geology.