These blended geographic features serve as a metaphor for the evolving college community, where Native American students and those of European descent have converged to obtain a higher education at Fort Lewis College, FLC, one of the top ranked public liberal arts institutions in the country.
The geological features surrounding the campus lure students to attend FLC for the added opportunity to climb, bike and hike the rugged terrain. However, recent stringent academic requirements for acceptance have intimidated prospective students from even applying to the college, particularly those from indigenous populations, contributing to an overall decrease in enrollment. Faculty, administrators and students are searching for innovative and educative ways to recruit and retain students from all backgrounds, emphasizing the role diversity plays in strengthening the teaching and learning environment offered at FLC.
Dr. Ryan Haaland, Chair and Professor of Physics & Engineering, is a steadfast advocate for diversity at FLC, stating that “Fort Lewis College is a rare place with unique energy. We are small enough that we (faculty and staff) get to really know our native and underrepresented students. We form relationships; serving as mentors and advocates to students during their undergraduate education, nurturing new pathways and encouraging them to expand their horizons before and beyond graduation.” The relationships to which he alludes are an essential component of every student success story, resting squarely on the foundation of trust between students and staff. “It is a sacred trust” Haaland continues, “one that defines who we are and what we stand for at FLC.”
Lindsay Chamblee, Physics & Engineering (2016) recalls discovering that sacred trust during her time in Durango. “FLC is where I found professors and peers who reassured my skills and encouraged my talent. This allowed me to recognize my own skills and continue pursuing my passion for engineering.” The encouragement to follow her interest in engineering came from Chamblee’s instructors, friends and her family. “Dr. Donald Rabern (Professor of Physics and Engineering) knew that I had an interest in solid mechanics and investigating material properties. I believe he recognized my interest before I really knew it myself.” Mentors such as Rabern and her own grandfather, an electrical engineer, helped pave the somewhat circuitous path Chamblee has taken to Iowa State University where she plans to obtain her master’s degree in mechanical engineering.
Grant money from the National Science Foundation (NSF) has enhanced the undergraduate physics and engineering program offered at FLC, providing students with the chance to experience science and engineering practices outside of the confines of a traditional classroom. Fort Lewis College faculty collaborate with faculty from Cornell University to provide meaningful experiences for women, minorities and persons with disabilities in science and engineering. The NSF-funded Summer Undergraduate Research in Science and Engineering (SUNRiSE) program at the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS) provides research opportunities for students attending primarily undergraduate and minority serving institutions, increasing the involvement of underrepresented summer research students at CHESS by ten percent over the past three years. Coupled with FLC’s special commitment to educating Native American populations, the CHESS/FLC partnership has become an effective mechanism for broadening the participation of underrepresented groups in top-notch research experiences. Students interested in gaining hands-on experience in science, engineering and technology spend eight weeks conducting studies on such topics as residual stress, fatigue, x-ray optics and detectors at a state-of-the-art research facility.
“Dr. Rabern encouraged me to apply for the Summer Undergraduate Research in Science and Engineering (SUNRISE) program” states Chamblee. “It was an opportunity to perform groundbreaking research alongside engineers and scientists who were innovators in their field. It was an opportunity to expand my academic experience and to explore a discipline more fully which would in turn prepare me for my post-graduation plans.” According to Haaland, “Lindsay’s event horizon was changed dramatically through the summer work done at CHESS. The SUNRiSE program provided her with a warm, safe and welcoming environment to explore her potential.”
Matt Miller, Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University and the Associate Director of the InSITU program at CHESS, works closely with Haaland, visiting Durango in the summer to meet and recruit students from his alma mater. “FLC has an impressive Physics and Engineering program. The new facilities are amazing….” Student have access to state of the art equipment and top-notch instructors who believe in them. “By partnering with Cornell, Miller explains, “FLC is able to level the playing field by providing their students with unparalleled research experiences and mentors who nurture their creative spirit. Our scientists and students benefit from the unique perspectives and background FLC participants bring to the project.”
In 2016, FLC received an Expanding STEM Opportunities Title III grant through the Department of Education. In addition to establishing a Computer Engineering degree and expanding the tutoring and mentoring support in the Native American Center, funds will be used to enhance the FLC undergraduate research model. The new research paradigm will reinforce the necessity of relationship-building among members of the FLC community to ensure student success. By fostering personal connections between students and faculty, a supportive environment with clear pathways to STEM opportunities will be transparent and accessible. Haaland believes these relationships and deliberate pathways are the key to student engagement in STEM. Transformative summer research experiences and internships for minorities at partnering institutions such as Cornell University (NSF CHESS), University of Colorado at Boulder, University of California Berkeley and Los Angeles (NSF STROBE), build agency and identity in STEM, gradually changing the prevalent white, male landscape of science and engineering.
Chamblee offers her advice to students interested in expanding their horizons through the new undergraduate research model adopted by FLC, “Do not doubt or underestimate your ability. You have knowledge and skills to share and others are excited to share their knowledge and skills with you. Everyone is there for the same purpose; to learn and to grow. If you are willing to submerge yourself in the experience you will leave a better student, researcher and person.”
Just like the mountainous terrain surrounding Durango entices its residents to scale some of the highest peaks in the country, the Physics & Engineering program at Fort Lewis College is challenging its students to soar to new heights and reach their fullest potential.
Information about the SUNRiSE program can be found here: