COSAM News Articles 2020 March Professor Catalyzes Legislative Bill, Supporting Veterans in STEM Careers Act

Professor Catalyzes Legislative Bill, Supporting Veterans in STEM Careers Act

Published: 03/03/2020

By: Melanie Vynalek

A letter written four years ago by an Auburn University College of Sciences and Mathematics (COSAM) professor set in motion a bill that was signed into law by President Trump this month: the Supporting Veterans in STEM Careers Act.

Hal Schenck, a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics and the first Rosemary Kopel Brown Eminent Scholars Chair in Mathematics, served four years as an officer in the U.S. Army before returning to school to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics. In his first year on the Plains, Schenck is continuing the work he began at other institutions in implementing mathematics support programs for student veterans.

While serving as a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, a conversation with a student veteran made Schenck start thinking about how to better support those returning to school after their military service. One fact that jumped out was that the biggest stumbling block for student veterans was mathematics. “I know how hard it can be to go from being in uniform to being in a classroom – it is a tough road,” Schenck said.

After moving to Iowa State in 2017 to become Chair of the Mathematics Department, Schenck implemented weekly tutoring, extra review sessions during finals week, and an intensive daylong “Math Boot Camp” for student veterans at the start of each semester. Since arriving at Auburn last Thanksgiving, Schenck has been working with the Veterans Resource Center to bring these programs to Auburn.

“The Rosemary Kopel Brown Chair gives me the opportunity to have a real impact on students and the university…it’s a fantastic honor, and I take seriously the responsibility to carry out the charge of Rosemary and John to help take Auburn and our students to the next level,” Schenck said. One of the initiatives now underway for student veterans at Auburn is additional one-on-one tutoring and extra review sessions led by graduate students. Schenck is coordinating with the Veterans Resource Center to prepare for Auburn’s inaugural “Math Boot Camp” next fall. “Don’t wait, take action yourself,” Schenck said. “The generosity of Rosemary and John allows me to do that.”

The Rosemary Kopel Brown Eminent Scholars Chair was created through a $2 million endowment given by 1957 Auburn alumni John and Rosemary Brown as part of a $57 million gift to Auburn, the largest in university history. Created in support of Because This is Auburn – A Campaign for Auburn University, the endowment serves to recruit a top scholar to the Auburn Department of Mathematics and Statistics.  

Schenck’s efforts are a part of a bigger picture, and it stretches beyond Auburn, Alabama. The United States faces a lack of qualified people in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and it is natural to look for ways to prepare veterans for careers in the field. After his conversation with a student veteran at Illinois in 2016, Schenck sent a letter to several veterans serving in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, outlining the need to support veterans pursuing careers in STEM. A bill was drafted in 2017, but then stalled between the House and Senate for several years…until a few weeks ago.

On January 3, 2020, the Senate and the House of Representatives enacted the Supporting Veterans in STEM Careers Act. The act strengthens efforts to attract and retain veterans in STEM careers, education, computer science and research.

The bill covers a wide variety of areas, including supporting veteran involvement in scientific research and STEM education, enhancing veteran outreach plans, and providing annual reports from the National Science Board.

Each year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is required to publish data on veterans’ participation in STEM fields in its “Indicators” report.

The bill will help promote and engage veterans in STEM career paths – whether it is an undergraduate taking a prerequisite mathematics course, an individual pursuing a higher degree in the field, or someone just getting their career off the ground. Schenck said “When a congressional staffer emailed me that the bill had passed, it gave me hope that the folks in Washington have not forgotten those who served.”


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