Jess & Mildred Fisher College of Science & Mathematics

State of the Fisher College, November 22, 2013

Presented by Dean David A. Vanko at the Fisher College Fall Forum

Dr. David Vanko giving his 2013 State of the College talkGood afternoon. Two years ago, in January 2012, we welcomed the arrival of our new President, Dr. Maravene Loeschke. Last year, in January 2013, we welcomed the arrival of our new Provost, Dr. Timothy Chandler. Thankfully, our leaders have settled in for the long haul, and it is with great pleasure that we welcome Provost Chandler to our FCSM Fall Forum, giving him yet another chance to meet this wonderful group of faculty and staff.

Today, I want to focus my remarks mostly on teaching and on research. In the Fisher College, I tell people that teaching and research are equally important. But I frequently hear this notion being questioned – particularly by those saying we have simply become a teaching institution, and that research is no longer valued, supported, and rewarded. I believe the actual truth will become evident if we look carefully at what we do, as opposed to what we say. So I offer the following observations about teaching and about research in the Fisher College.

Let’s take teaching first. STEM graduates prepared to enter the workforce or to go on to graduate or professional schools: these are our teaching products. It’s the number of STEM graduates that we produce that the State wants us, and needs us, to increase. In the future much of our funding may be tied to whether this number goes up or down. But how can we graduate more? Our major numbers are at an all time high and continue to increase. There’s simply no room, and we can’t keep stuffing in more majors. But here’s the solution: like most comprehensive institutions across the country, of those students who enter as freshmen in a STEM field, less than half graduate with a STEM degree. More than half transfer to a non-STEM major: business, liberal arts, you name it. We have a retention problem. Students have a persistence problem. To retain students in STEM, we need to equip them with strategies that help them to persist.

Naturally, many of those who decided to transfer into a non-STEM major made a good decision. Not everyone can master science and math at a high level. But at least some of those transfers could be avoided. That’s why two of the Fisher College’s major objectives are to understand why our students don’t persist, and to intervene to improve our retention and graduation rates. Here are some of the actions that we are taking.

  1. 100 STEM majors, 80 of them first-year students, are housed together in our new STEM Residential Learning Community in Richmond Hall. I meet groups of these students over pizza on a monthly basis, and the reports I get about their experience are glowing. We will study these students, comparing them to a control group, to try to understand why some will succeed in STEM and others will not.

  2. We are particularly concerned about the more at-risk students, and our Towson Opportunities in STEM (TOPS) program has been focused on this issue. Again, we want to understand why some of these students persist while others do not.

  3. Significant efforts to redesign large-enrollment courses, often called gateway courses, are being tested in most of our programs. We’re gaining valuable experience and hope to continue with redesigns that work.

  4. In light of research results that correlate student success with opportunities for authentic hands-on research, experienced early and often, we have increased our support for traditional undergraduate research grants and travel grants, and we are devoting the bulk of our general endowment funds to creative faculty-driven projects that provide such experiences both inside and outside of the classroom or lab.

  5. Student education and faculty-student research are the two main reasons that we have operated the TU Field Station in Monkton for almost five years. We are planning a 5-year celebration on Saturday, May 3rd, and everyone will be invited to the Field Station. More importantly, a new 5-year Memorandum of Understanding was signed this week with the property owner, Al Henneman, so our presence at the Field Station will continue. Over the past two years, we have invested $97,000 of General Endowment money into education and research projects there. Similarly, student education and faculty-student research are the two chief reasons that we and the university have been investing in the Glen Arboretum for the past two or three years.

  6. The students who come to Towson with the strongest educational backgrounds are more likely to be successful. That means, in the long run, we must continue to prepare stronger and stronger K-12 teachers for the Early Childhood, Elementary, and Middle School programs, and the new Towson UTeach secondary program. We must also continue to offer excellent professional development to in-service teachers through our many outreach efforts. Our STEM Education faculty and staff all conduct research on the effectiveness of teaching, teacher professional development, and outreach. They are responsible for a considerable number of publications and grants received in the Fisher College.

Time will tell if our efforts to improve student persistence and success will work, but I am quite hopeful and optimistic. But now, let’s talk some more about research. Notice, of course, that we already have talked about research, because good teaching and faculty research at Towson go hand in hand. Undergraduate research projects are frequently linked to faculty research. So, of course, are graduate research projects. Our undergraduate and graduate programs depend upon knowledgeable, up-to-date, active faculty members. That’s why I claim that teaching and research are equally important.

Our college, as you know, invests considerable resources into research. In the sciences we frequently award start-up packages to new faculty members, and the dollar amount over the years has steadily risen. My intent is actually to accelerate this trend. We award the Fisher Endowed Chair to promising tenure-track faculty. We invest not only in equipment for teaching, but also equipment for research. Many of our instruments and computing devices serve both teaching and research. And we continue to try to improve our facilities to accommodate additional research projects. The program for the Smith Hall project contains a significant increase in research lab space, and the quality of that space will far surpass what we have now in Smith Hall, with the exception of the our new Urban Environmental Biogeochemistry Lab.

Our college requested over $14 million in extramural funding last fiscal year, and we were awarded $5.3 million. This is a remarkable level of funding for a science and math college in a comprehensive institution. This year, our numbers appear to be down, and I think this is likely due to the sequester and a diminished availability of funds and, therefore, a decreased likelihood of winning grants. Nevertheless, I encourage everyone to continue to conduct research and, where possible, to seek outside funding. We really need it for the sake of our graduate and undergraduate students.

I want to remind everyone that seed funding is available internally, both from the FDRC and, significantly from our own School of Emerging Technologies. The SET is seeking out projects that utilize emerging technologies, and unlike the FDRC, which filters proposals like a granting agency, the SET nurtures and assists with project development. Proposals will be due in March and projects can run for up to two years. SET projects to date have helped catalyze seven extramural grant proposals, and we want more.

I hope I have convinced you that there’s no retreat in our intent to be a college where teaching and research are both paramount. This is fully in line with Provost Chandler’s frequent description of Towson University as a comprehensive-plus institution – not a plain vanilla comprehensive, not an R-1, but a comprehensive-plus. I have tried to highlight our college’s dedication to teaching and research, and to paint a balanced, accurate picture. Just for fun I have checked this document, and I have used the word “teach” 20 times, and the word “research” 28 times.

Before I finish, I’d like to highlight just a few things that I think need celebrating. One is our new FCSM family and medical leave guidelines. Following the University System of Maryland’s enlightened lead, and consistent with our Diversity Action Plan and our Strategic Plan, we quickly adopted guidelines that provide very generous flexibility for faculty members who have important family and medical issues such as a new baby. Six faculty members are able to take advantage of the guidelines this year alone, and I hope that this family-friendly approach will help everyone struggling with the work-life balance.

I mentioned the Glen Arboretum a few minutes ago. Professor Emeritus Jim Hull was recognized in October for his leadership work in the Glen by the Alumni Association, with their 2013 Faculty Volunteer Recognition Award. About three weeks ago I wrote a letter to everyone who has donated to the Glen in the last ten years. I told them about the work that Dr. Hull was leading, and that he had been given this award, and I invited them to make a donation to the Glen in Jim’s honor, to be announced at the Fall Forum. I’m happy to say that as of today this appeal has resulted in gifts totaling $1,795. Congratulations to Jim!

Speaking of donations, this year we have received major gifts, pledges or bequests to support endowed scholarships in biology, pre-professional programs, science education, and Towson UTeach, totaling over $375,000. This represents the fruit of new initiatives in our development office to be more focused on college needs, and I hope is the beginning of some major development initiatives to support Fisher College programs in teaching, research and outreach. But more important, these gifts testify to the fact that our alumni appreciate what you do, and are willing to invest their own money in the Fisher College.

Finally, I want to mention the Smith Hall project. All the possibilities that we have been hearing and talking about – various options to build and renovate, or build a new science center on Lot 1 – are in play. Dr. Chandler and President Loeschke favor a new building and are doing their best to make it happen, as are the rest of our TU team. The State is now beginning to analyze Towson’s proposal, and we remain hopeful. No matter what the final decision, we will end up with fine new facilities for science. But let’s be positive, cross your fingers and be prepared to celebrate!

Thank you for coming today and please enjoy the rest of the afternoon and, more importantly, the rest of the academic year. Happy holidays to all.


The Jess and Mildred Fisher
College of Science and Mathematics
Smith Hall, Room 312 (campus map)
Phone: 410-704-2121
Fax: 410-704-2604





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