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Mini-STEM Tackles the Big Questions at CU Denver

CU Denver's Mini-STEM brings science to the masses.

The origin of life? Dark matter? Climate change and water (or lack thereof)? The Mini-STEM School by CU Denver has a free public lecture on it.
"Students are not entering the science, technology, math and engineering, or STEM, disciplines in the U.S.," says Dr. Barry Shur, Dean of the CU Denver Graduate School. "We're losing our leadership position to Europe and Asia."
 
Among U.S. high-school students, interest in STEM peaked in 2001 and declined markedly through 2004, according to a recent report by My College Options and STEMconnector. Interest has bounced back in the past nine years, but never fully recovered to its 2001 levels. Another telling stat: Seniors in high school are notably less interested than the freshmen.
"We want to show the public that this is fascinating stuff," says CU Denver Graduate School Dean Dr. Barry Shur. "It's their tax dollars. They should be engaged."

"In the Sputnik years, everyone wanted to be an engineer," says Shur. "They're just not interested anymore."
 
In response, last week the University of Colorado Denver launched the Mini-STEM School, a series of eight free lectures targeting the layperson. Attendees who make it to at least six of the lectures earn a certificate.
 
"The purpose of putting these lectures together is to show the public science is fascinating and it's something the public should be engaged in," says Shur. "We want to show the public that this is fascinating stuff. It's their tax dollars. They should be engaged."
 
On January 31, the first Mini-STEM lecture was "Evolution and the Origin of Life" by Dr. Diana Tomback, Professor and Associate Chair of CU Denver's Department of Integrative Biology.
 
 It attracted more than 300 people, ranging from elementary schoolers to retirees, to the Turnhalle at the Tivoli Student Union.
 
There, in a little over an hour, Tomback covered a semester's worth of evolutionary biology, asking and answering big questions like "How did life begin?" and "Are humans still evolving?" Her answer to the latter: a resounding yes. "The tables have turned," she says. "Humans and their activities are a major evolutionary force."
 
Other lecture tidbits of note: Icelandic women tend to be more fertile when they're older thanks to evolution; one to four percent of Eurasian DNA matches neanderthal DNA; and religion and evolution are not mutually exclusive.
 
"Science and religion are really about the same thing," says Tomback. "They ask questions about the meaning of life. They just come at it from different perspectives."
 
Post-lecture Q&As and  online follow-up discussions the next week give attendees two chances to pick the lecturer's brain. 
 
"Fifteen minutes in, she said, 'I've learned more in 15 minutes than I've learned in four weeks at school,'" says Mini-STEM attendee Sara Cheng of her daughter Hannah.
Anesthesiologist Sara Cheng and her seventh-grade daughter, Hannah Cussen, were among the attendees to the first lecture.
 
"We're a fairly science-y family, so this is right up our alley," says Cheng, favorably comparing the lecture to one at a similar program at Stanford University. 
 
Cussen gave the lecture high marks as well. "It was pretty cool," she says. Evolution "is happening now and it affects me."
 
Adds Cheng of her daughter's reaction: "Fifteen minutes in, she said, 'I've learned more in 15 minutes than I've learned in four weeks at school.'"
 
Next up for Mini-STEM is "Closing in on Dark Matter" by Dr. Martin Huber of CU Denver's physics department at the Tivoli Turnhalle on February 7 from 7 to 9 p.m. Dark matter makes up most of the mass in universe while resisting easy observation, and Huber has been part of the international team trying to definitively detect the stuff. There is still space for attendees, but registration is required.

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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