By Jim DeLa
New College professors Sandra Gilchrist, Amy Clore, Mariana Sendova and Tania Roy sat down with five Russian teachers visiting Sarasota last week to talk about how to recruit and encourage women to study science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines.
The visit was facilitated by the Open World Leadership Center, a program created by Congress in 1999 to connect U.S. leaders and professionals with their counterparts from countries in post-Soviet states.
This delegation of educators from high school and college-level schools in Russia spent a week in Sarasota visiting New College, local high schools, the Mote Marine Laboratory, the Ringling College of Art and Design, and speaking with area Girl Scouts leaders and members of the American Association of University Women, all focusing on encouraging women to pursue STEM fields.
The New College faculty talked about community outreach and the opportunities they create for learning. Sendova, a physics professor, told the Russians about a program that brings students from Pine View School for the Gifted to New College to study, and securing a grant to allow student to work in a laboratory in Bulgaria to research new energy resources.
Biology and Marine Science Professor Sandra Gilchrist told the group about her yearly summer course to study coral reefs in Honduras, and described her work with high school students and their teachers. “We work with teachers, to teach them how to do science in their classrooms.”
She added that her particular interest is to encourage underserved and low-income students in STEM fields.
The Russian educators said they do have one advantage over their American counterparts. While science classes, especially advanced subjects like physics, are often electives in the U.S., they are required as early as ninth grade in Russia.
“STEM teaches the ability to solve problems and think critically,” said mathematics teacher Liudmila Vailer. The Russian system is heavily focused on theory, Vailer said. “We’re trying to find the logical answers … find the shortest route to a solution.”
What the Russian educational system is not very good at, many participants said, is translating theory into practical applications. “We really like the fact that you take the time to add practical application to theory,” Vailer said.
“Physics is a way of thinking and a way of life,” Senova said. “It’s not just a big pile of facts.”
“It’s important for everyone to get a basic knowledge so they can think critically,” New College Biology professor Amy Clore added.
“Maybe we should start thinking about that in a different way,” Vailer suggested.
Anastasiia Menshikova, who teaches computer security, said she was surprised at the tenor of communication between students and professors in the U.S. “In Russia, it’s more rigid; there’s more discipline,” she said. “I was surprised how free the students feel,” to express their opinions. “In Russia, students don’t speak as freely.”
— Jim DeLa is digital communications coordinator at New College of Florida.