State of the College Address

Presented by Dean David A. Vanko at the Fisher College Fall Forum on December 9, 2016

Dean David A. Vanko

It’s my pleasure to reflect on the state of the Jess and Mildred Fisher College of Science and Mathematics today.  First, I’m personally very happy that President Kim Schatzel, who began in January, is really doing a great job.  With a background in the corporate world, followed by an academic career in business and marketing, she’s focused on elevating Towson’s reputation locally and regionally.  She’s also lobbying hard for the timely completion of the new science facility and then, after that, a Health Professions building.  If she were here, I know we would all want to thank her.

Today, I’ll be focusing on four areas – strategic themes that we have been addressing for several years now, and which I share frequently with the Chairs’ Council and the College Council as our top priorities.  These are (1) student success; (2) STEM teacher preparation;
(3) the new science building; and (4) diversity and inclusion within the FCSM.

(1) Student success

We certainly have many student success initiatives in the FCSM.  One of our key programs, Towson Opportunities in STEM, or TOPS, began in 2007 with a $2M National Science Foundation award.  Although the grant ran out long ago, we continue to support the TOPS program with staff, specifically Dr. Sharlene Roberson, and operating funds.  Another program, now in its third year, is our STEM Residential Learning Community.  Also overseen by Dr. Roberson, the STEM RLC is giving us a chance to evaluate what interventions eventually lead to improved student success metrics such as persistence and time to graduation.

In mathematics, we’re tweaking the procedures for student placement, and this has resulted in less reliance on developmental math classes.  We’re revamping the math tutoring/study facilities, and we’ve joined the University System of Maryland in a new grant program from the Department of Education to develop a core math alternative for non-STEM majors that emphasizes statistical reasoning over college algebra and calculus. 

In geology a new National Science Foundation grant is supporting efforts to increase recruitment and retention of geoscience majors through curricular reform, better advising, better transfer pathways, and the creation of learning communities.

Biology has been increasing the opportunities for students to experience authentic research in several courses, and they have just submitted a $1M grant proposal to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute that would fund the implementation of CUREs, which stands for course-based undergraduate research experiences.

Computer and Information Sciences just received a new capacity-building grant from the National Security Agency that will assist members of the U.S. Army Reserve who wish to begin or continue their studies in computer science and cybersecurity. 

And Chemistry is piloting a program for general chemistry students that provides supports for those who struggle early in the semester, offering them an opportunity, a life-line, if you will, to get back on track with special recitation sections.  Additionally, the B.S. in Forensic Chemistry and the M.S. in Forensic Science were both reaccredited for five years.  Ours are the only FEPAC-accredited programs in Maryland.  In fact, there are only about two dozen or so accredited programs nationwide.

These are just a few examples of the many activities in our college that focus on student success.  I want to take another tack now, and emphasize something that should be obvious to all of us – real student success can only be achieved through the dedicated work of accomplished staff members and faculty members.  Specifically, here in the Fisher College we explicitly embrace the Scholar-Teacher model, which recognizes that research-active faculty contribute to student success by bringing their research into the classroom and lab, and by engaging students, both undergraduate and graduate, in their research.  Therefore, let me highlight a few facts about our college’s research accomplishments. 

Last year, FCSM faculty members published 291 refereed works and 32 books, and made 316 professional presentations.  That’s an average per faculty member of 2.4 refereed works and 2.6 presentations each year – a very strong output for a faculty that has our teaching load of between 6 and 8 courses a year.  Also last year, we had 102 active grants or contracts, and the official total grant amount reported from the Office of Sponsored Projects and Research was $3,583,302, amounting to $29,312 per faculty member. 

Significantly, Fisher College faculty have received four National Science Foundation CAREER grants, with a fifth one soon to be announced.  Not many institutions like us have so many CAREER awardees. 

Our success in research is to some degree a result of our intentional investments in our faculty.  Examples are the seed funding provided through our School of Emerging Technologies, directed now by Heidi Feng; our steadily increasing start-up packages for science faculty who need major equipment to do their work; and our Fisher Endowed Chair program.  On that last topic, we just recognized the end of the three-year appointments of two Fisher Endowed Professors, Peko Tsuji and Joel Moore; and we announced the 11th Endowed Professor in the Biological and Physical Sciences – Keith Reber.  In addition, we began a new parallel Endowed Chair program this year for the Mathematical and Computing Sciences, and our first two Endowed Professors in the Mathematical and Computing Sciences are Nathan McNew and Nam Nguyen.

Continuing with the theme of linking Student Success to exceptional faculty, I want to mention a number of special faculty accomplishments that we heard about this year (at the risk of missing someone).  In chronological order:

  • Jonathan Lazar received the 2016 Social Impact Award from the Special Interest Group in Computer-Human Interaction, recognizing his and his students’ research that addresses internet accessibility for all.
  • University System of Maryland Regents’ Awards this year were received by Jane Wolfson (Excellence in Public Service), Rommel Miranda (Excellence in Teaching), and Matthew Hemm (Excellence in Mentoring).
  • Brian Fath received the 2016 Prigogine Medal at a ceremony in Spain.  The medal recognizes a top scientist in the field of ecological systems analysis.
  • Beth Kautzman received the 2016 President’s Diversity Award in the category of Faculty-Research.
  • Christina Romano received the 2016 Instructor of the Year award from the National Mobile Lab Coalition.
  • Wei Yu was awarded a 2017 Wilson H. Elkins professorship by the University System of Maryland, to support his research on critical security issues for modern cyber-physical transportation systems.
  • Heidi Feng and Ziying Tang were named 2016 “Innovators of the Year” by the Daily Record, in recognition of their ArmStroke mobile app for patients who have had strokes.
  • And Martha Seigel was named the recipient of the 2017 Gung and Hu Award for Distinguished Service to the Mathematical Association of America.

Congratulations to all these folks, and congratulations to us for supporting student success and academic excellence!

(2) STEM teacher preparation

We are the college with the mathematics educators and the science educators, the STEM educators, who help prepare future teachers from early childhood through high school.  This is another thing that makes the Fisher College somewhat distinct.  We are committed to serving the STEM students of the future through the preparation of high quality science and math teachers.  For the last few years, we’ve been engaged in adopting the UTeach model for secondary STEM teacher education, which began at UT-Austin.  With the aid of an extramural grant, we took on the hard work of creating Towson UTeach.  Linda Cooper and Christine Roland have been our leaders in this effort.  Now, Towson UTeach is launched, nearing maturity, and producing quality teachers for the region.  Our strategic focus on the success of Towson UTeach has included a major fund-raising campaign, and I’m glad to report that we now have over a million dollars in endowed funds to help support the program in perpetuity.  And with new UTeach space in the 7800 building, and more UTeach space planned for the new science building, I think we can declare that our goal of launching the UTeach program and putting it in a stable orbit is within reach.

In addition to UTeach, which is a secondary school program, we continue to provide the STEM education component for middle school, elementary education and early childhood education.  New this year is the very successful post-baccalaureate certificate in Integrated STEM Leadership for practicing teachers.  And, our STEM education faculty and staff provide critical professional development opportunities for in-service teachers, and outreach to K-12 students.

(3) The new science building

This brings me to strategic goal number three, the new science building.  We’ve been talking about and planning this building project for almost ten years.  We’ve changed from thinking about a Smith Hall addition, to a whole new building that is now 320,000 square feet – larger than the College of Liberal Arts building. 

Here’s our vision for the new building, which I share with potential donors:

  • It will be a home for accomplished and productive teacher-scholar faculty members: where teaching and research are equally valued
  • A home for a diverse and highly qualified student body
  • A place for collaboration, dissolving traditional disciplinary “silos”
  • A place to foster interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary research and teaching
  • A place for the highest quality STEM teacher preparation – elementary, middle, and secondary (via Towson UTeach)
  • A LEED-silver or gold building that blends seamlessly into the Glen Arboretum
  • An attractive building that respects the iconic Stephens Hall and the Towson University Master Plan
  • A place for “Science on Display” – drawing students in and informing the public
  • A place that heralds Towson University as a distinctive jewel in the University System of Maryland’s crown.

I truly hope that in 2020, we’ll be moving in to a wonderful new building that we all really deserve.

(4) Diversity and inclusion within the FCSM

Our fourth and final strategic goal for the next few years is to improve our college’s profile with respect to diversity and inclusion.  Walking through Smith Hall and 7800; visiting the STEM residential learning community in Richmond Hall, and taking part in commencement, I am so excited by the diversity of our student body.  Indeed, the proportion of minority students in the Fisher College exceeds that of any other college at Towson.  I truly believe that our mission must include a commitment to a very diverse graduating class, for the benefit of Maryland’s STEM workforce, and for the benefit of society. 

While I’m thrilled by the increasing diversification of our student body, our faculty profile has not changed much.  I think it’s actually possible that a person of color majoring in our college might be able to obtain his or her degree without ever having a faculty member of color teaching them.  I think that’s a problem.  In many disciplines we are doing well with respect to gender diversity, but perhaps not as well with respect to racial diversity.  So I want us to think about and talk about this issue.  What do we want our college to look like in the future?  How do we want our college to address the contrasting consequences of privilege and discrimination as they relate to college access, student success, and career advancement? 

These are tough issues and I hope you’ll join me in the coming years to face them head-on.  I look forward to Towson’s upcoming hire of a new Vice President of Inclusion and Institutional Equity, who may be able to assist us as we move forward.


I appreciate your all being here today, to welcome our new colleagues, to celebrate our colleagues who’ve been recognized with awards, and to revel in the high quality and accomplishments of the Fisher College.  I wish you all a great Holiday Season.  Thank you to Grace and her student assistants who have helped make today possible.  Happy Holidays!