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MW instructor speaks about STEM program

WORTHINGTON -- Helping students from underrepresented groups succeed in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) will also help bring communities together and increase the pace of scientific advancement.

Dave Matthews, a math instructor at Minnesota West Community and Technical College, will speak today about ways to do just that at a conference, "Equity in STEM Programs -- Supporting Student Success," at Anoka-Ramsey Community College.

"We have to use our human resources to their ultimate potential. The biggest waste we have is when we have entire communities of potential wasted because these people don't have access or don't have the opportunity (to get involved in STEM)," Matthews said.

Matthews believes open source educational materials and Creative Commons-licensed educational materials can be used to increase involvement in STEM in underrepresented communities, such as women in roles traditionally occupied by men, older students, minority students or first-generation college students.

There are often three types of obstacles facing those groups in STEM, Matthews said -- financial, cultural, and linguistic. Sometimes individuals or institutions cannot afford to pay for educational materials. Sometimes the materials were designed with a particular culture in mind and are not compatible with other groups. And overwhelmingly, objects and instructional resources are English-only.

Opensource software and educational resources can be used by anyone, but they can also be modified by anyone and redistributed to anyone. Materials originally targeted to youths in Denver could be reconfigured to assist French-speaking students in a rural farming community in Haiti, for example, without infringing on copyrights.

Creative Commons licensing is slightly different and has several different levels of copyright protection, some of which allow people to do anything they want to do with materials and some of which do not allow modification of the material.

The goal of the open education movement, Matthews said, is to have learning objects and educational materials created by a community, for that community, with that community's full ownership. Other people would then be free to legally copy, build on, add to, modify, translate or adapt those materials however they wanted.

"If you do something on Google ... it might be free today, but they may decide they want you to register tomorrow," Matthews said,

But Creative Commons and open-source materials don't have that problem.

"The nice thing about this is that it's free, and it's all openly available. If you can get to the computer, you can access this."

Matthews uses a Creative Commons-licensed textbook for his algebra class. Students could get it online for free, or purchase a hard copy of the text for approximately $25 -- a far cry from more usual algebra textbooks, which can cost $175.

His class also uses GeoGebra, a free open-source program whose commercially licensed alternative would cost Minnesota West thousands of dollars each year to purchase.

All those materials can be used for all students, but will be especially helpful in reaching students in underrepresented communities, Matthews said.

"Think about how many scientific discoveries we never made all the way through, up until the '60s, '70s and '80s, because African Americans couldn't go to good schools," Matthews said. "You think about all these brilliant people who were stuck with no education, and not only do they lose. but the whole country loses."

"All of those potential inventions, all of those potential ideas, all of those potential entrepreneurs are all just wasted when people don't have full access and the opportunity to develop their potential," he added. "So I think it's important for all of us. We all benefit."