Cultivating STEM Leaders

Written by Tina Potterf

March 28, 2024

Exterior shot of science builing

Dean’s Fellows, a new program in the College of Science and Engineering, builds leadership skills, critical thinking and connections across majors.

This past fall, the College of Science and Engineering launched a new program for first-year students, providing opportunities to build community and connections with peers while developing leadership skills in STEM fields. 

The Dean’s Fellows program is comprised of highly motivated students—there are 25 students in this first cohort—who come from a range of majors within the college and once selected as fellows will stay in the program through their senior, or fourth, year. The programming connected to the Dean’s Fellows pulls on a theme consistent with the university’s Reignited Strategic Directions. 

“In line with our mission to educate leaders for a just and humane world, these Dean’s Fellows are creative and aspiring leaders in STEM who are learning to tackle the challenges facing humanity,” says Dean Amit Shukla, PhD. “As part of their growth and education, the fellows are learning how Jesuit education serves humanity through innovation.”

This year’s theme, selected by the fellows the summer before the start of the program, actually combines two that undeniably intersect—racial equity and environmental sustainability. 

In the first year of the program, the fellows:

  • Build anchoring connections with peers and a faculty expert around the theme.
  • Take a course with other fellows related to the chosen theme and complete at least one co-curricular project, activity or event.
  • Develop a deeper understanding of an interdisciplinary problem, question or theme while gaining individual support for career exploration and development.
  • Help shape the program for future students.

The program is co-facilitated by Lyn Gualtieri, PhD, teaching professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Brenda Bourns, PhD, teaching professor in Biology. 

Gualtieri and Bourns chose a local scientific topic—river restoration—for them to explore through the theme. 

“We decided to look at the Duwamish and Elwha rivers/watershed restoration from an interdisciplinary perspective because they both offer significant and interesting environmental and racial justice components,” says Gualtieri. “Both these waterways also have a significant human history component that ties in directly with their history and restoration.”

Part of the work involved having the fellows connect their research to answering the following questions: “What combination of factors both natural and manmade are necessary for healthy river restoration and How does this enhance the sustainability of natural and human communities?”

Their responses were factored into how they approach their interdisciplinary research projects that the fellows work on as part of a 1-credit course in the fall. By the end of the quarter the students, in teams, present their findings. 

“Every week we had faculty ‘coaches’ from different disciplines in S&E come in and give a talk about how that discipline is used to answer questions in river restoration. Students also conducted their own online research and had a chance to ask the faculty coaches questions,” explains Gualtieri. Disciplines represented by faculty were biology, chemistry, environmental science, civil engineering and computer science. 

Being part of the first cohort of Dean’s Fellows allows the students to grow together, tackle scientific problems with peers from different disciplines and explore the range of STEM fields. 

Says Gualtieri, “They effectively interrogated, researched and tied in the natural, human and built environment, a perfect example of where we think science is headed.”

As part of their coursework, the Dean’s Fellows wrote reflections on what they learned working as part of a team, along with acquiring skills on how to give an effective presentation. The fellows also were asked to be introspective, envisioning themselves as a leader in STEM.

The Dean’s Fellows program, says Gualtieri, aligns with the mission of SU to educate the whole person and for students to be critical thinkers and problem solvers. It’s also a great way for new student to explore their potential future paths in STEM. 

“I think this program is an effective way to show students that they don’t need to pick just one major or discipline to study. Our students are fortunate to have the opportunity to take this interdisciplinary course in their first quarter as trends in science move toward cross discipline solutions.”