STEM initiatives bring science to life

Dr. Chetna Patel, Professor and Chair of Physical Sciences, interacts with her students in an organic chemistry course.

“Teaching is more than providing content to students. It’s about capturing students’ interest, keeping them engaged in learning and showing how that content applies to their future careers.”

Dr. Chetna Patel, Professor and Chair of Physical Sciences, approaches her undergraduate organic chemistry courses with this idea always in the background. Active in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) initiatives at AU, Patel combines her expertise in the field of chemistry with innovative ways of teaching and learning.

In 2009, when Patel became involved in an Illinois Mathematics and Science Partnership grant to work with curriculum development in master’s level education courses, she never imagined how immersed she would become in STEM initiatives beyond her regular faculty course load. However, as she assisted with summer workshops for teachers and collaborated with area industrial partners to bring science to life in elementary and secondary classrooms, Patel saw the tremendous potential for innovation that AU could bring to the Fox Valley community.

“The summer workshops allowed me to learn about the issues that teachers face and to find ways to support those educators,” she said. “And they also enabled me to keep learning, to connect with fellow faculty members and partners to advance my own teaching and to step outside my own comfort zone.”

Four years later, Patel is at the forefront of STEM, continuing her participation in workshops, helping shape the construction of interdisciplinary labs in the John C. Dunham STEM Partnership School at Aurora University, and bringing innovations to her own undergraduate teaching.

Patel’s interest in implementing new teaching methods reflects one of the key initiatives of the AU Institute for Collaboration: inspiring teachers to teach STEM content by equipping them with real-world applications. And this is exactly what Patel is doing in her own classroom. Her classes are rarely centered around lectures, but rather incorporate three dimensional models, collaborative work and discussion among classmates. “Chemistry often comes with the perception that it will be too difficult,” said Patel. “I look for ways to make it fun and exciting, to show examples of how it relates to health science careers and to incorporate hands-on collaborative learning into the classroom.”

Prior to enrolling in Patel’s course, senior biology major Bryan Roberts was dreading the study of organic chemistry. But, with Patel’s energetic and practical approach, Roberts became engaged in the subject. “Dr. Patel makes organic chemistry interesting by connecting what we learn to our other classes,” he said. “She is constantly asking if we have questions and making sure that we understand the content.”

Senior Allison Adair echoes Roberts’ thoughts. “Dr. Patel never teaches at you,” she said. “She has a way of making you think and helping you to see how chemistry is intertwined in everything.”

Above all, Patel values the atmosphere of camaraderie that STEM initiatives have created at AU. “The faculty involved in STEM initiatives are a strong, committed group,” she said. “We’ve established a collaborative atmosphere toward technology and laboratory work. We know that together we can help the education system by inspiring teachers and encouraging students to pursue STEM careers.”

For more information on Aurora University STEM initiatives, visit stem.aurora.edu.