The NSM Story: An Epic Adventure for Students

Each student who moves through the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics follows a similar educational narrative: a three-chapter journey designed to produce exceptional graduates. From outreach to research, explore each chapter of the NSM story.

The very first cohort of the College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics walked the halls in 1960, beginning a storied legacy of exceptional education with high-impact outcomes. Our graduates have tackled global challenges, earned academic honors, and enriched our workforce for decades.

The college has evolved over time, adapting to modern demands and elevating the experiences available to our students and communities. Part of this evolution involved defining and articulating the narrative of NSM – the educational journey that students walk as they pass through the college.

Marie Johnson, dean of the college, says, “The pieces of the NSM story have always existed, particularly the final chapter – but you can’t get to the end without a strong beginning. The college has an intentional structure and educational experience, but developing the story of it took some time.”

Chapter 1: Engaging Minds Early On

At NSM, the journey of our scholars begins with support, encouragement, and the nurturing of critical thinking, often before students even set foot on our campus. Outreach efforts like Project MISS, Project RAISE, STEM Academy, and the Fullerton Math Circle all connect directly with high school and community college students, guiding them toward futures in STEM and helping them build relationships with like-minded peers and mentors.

Supportive initiatives enable us to connect with incoming students and enhance their chances of success by helping them think like a mathematician or scientist and begin to imagine their academic and professional futures. For example, NSM students pursuing their teaching credentials are actively placed within secondary math classrooms across Orange County to gain experience and exposure to real-world educational environments. A testament to the college’s commitment to cultivating analytical minds, nearly every first-year NSM student participates in CNSM-101 “Think Like Einstein,” sharpening critical thinking skills that will propel them through their academic pursuits.

The transition from high school education to collegiate learning can be one of the most demanding in students’ lives, and these efforts equip students with the confidence and tools to succeed.

Chapter 2: Education and Development Through Discovery

The second chapter of the students’ journey is marked by profound immersion and purposeful exploration. At this juncture, students delve into specialized departmental pursuits, with research experiences woven seamlessly into classroom learning. Summer months come alive with lab sessions, computational endeavors, and vibrant field studies. This enhanced engagement ensures not only a deeper understanding of their fields but also gives students an enhanced sense of purpose, boosting their interest and motivation and steering them toward timely graduation.

Mentored by esteemed NSM professors, students tackle intricate, real-world research challenges to develop broad and discipline-specific problem-solving and technical skills. Whether completed collaboratively or individually, these endeavors stoke the flames of STEM-infused innovation and imagination, empowering students to think of themselves as scientists or mathematicians rather than science or math majors.

Dean Johnson says that despite the college’s size – accommodating more than 40,000 students – small, collaborative groups with faculty and fellow students ensure all learners receive the attentive, focused support and encouragement they deserve. A shining exemplar of such dedication is Bogdan Suceavă, professor of mathematics. His accolades, including the 2023 CSUF L. Donald Shields Excellence in Scholarship and Creativity Award, are a testament not just to his brilliance but to his unwavering commitment to student involvement in research and all of his projects. Dean Johnson states that Suceavă represents the excellence inherent in NSM faculty.

Chapter 3: A New Beginning of Lasting Learning

In students’ third chapter at NSM, the emphasis shifts to instilling enduring curiosity and equipping them for professional realms and continuous learning, with an emphasis on research. It seamlessly aligns students’ passions with their chosen professions, championing active learning. Every student is proactively steered toward joining faculty-led research initiatives, which allow them to tackle research questions they’re interested in while collaborating with peers and mentors – encouraging original thought within a teamwork-based, real-world setting.

NSM faculty are integral to students’ experiences, offering mentorship in classroom learning, research experiences, and extracurricular activities. They guide, mentor, and collaborate with students, offering the support and connections essential to producing skilled, thoughtful scientists and mathematicians and boosting student retention, motivation, and engagement. Dean Johnson stresses the significance of this role.

“Faculty, past and present, are the heart of the academic enterprise,” Dean Johnson says. “Nearly every academic has a story about a faculty member who made a difference and encouraged them, and it takes just one faculty member to change a student’s trajectory. I had one during my undergraduate study at Harvard – John A. Wood, professor emeritus of geology and former associate director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics – and I’ve witnessed our faculty do the same for our students.”

Students are afforded a range of avenues to explore their interests, from dynamic research centers to hands-on lab work and advanced computing resources to field-based research. The research opportunities in NSM are varied, exciting, and meaningful, such as Assistant Professor of Inorganic Chemistry Joya Cooley’s project studying materials that behave oddly when heated and the implications for climate change effects on urban environments, and Professor of Geology Matthew Kirby’s study of ancient glacial Lake Mojave, also focused on climate change but with an interest in what the past can tell us about the future – both of which involve student researchers.

“These opportunities are for all students, not just those students who want to get an advanced degree,” Dean Johnson says. “Research gives students the opportunity to practice failing. A lot of college is about finding the right answer and submitting it, but research is a lot of trying and failing and trying again – it’s open-ended. Generally, in life, successful people pick themselves up and find a different path. Open-ended research gives students opportunities to do that in a safe environment.”

Research also teaches many employable skills that help students transition smoothly straight into employment opportunities.

The Donor Impact

During each chapter of the NSM story, donor support plays a critical role in the experiences and support the college offers students.

In the first chapter of the student experience, donors help to:

  • Reduce financial barriers through scholarship funding
  • Support community-building opportunities for incoming students
  • Strengthen outreach and the mathematics and science pipeline to NSM
  • Create equitable, accessible, and inspiring educational spaces

Donors support multiple research opportunities during the second chapter of the NSM story, including research fellowships, project-based experiences, summer programs, and peer-to-peer programs. Donations also aid in curriculum innovations to ensure students receive cutting-edge learning experiences.

For the third chapter of students’ NSM journey, donors can help power fellowships, thesis completion grants, professional development opportunities, advanced equipment, and endowed professorships, centers, and departments.

Each donation directly supports student success at every chapter, fostering impactful opportunities and learning that develop students into exemplary graduates.

A Story of Success

Persistence is key in the academic journey. In fact, in the dean’s eyes, it’s one of the most significant indicators of success. Her crucial advice to students? Show up.

“The ones who win show up every day,” Dean Johnson says. “Success is lots of little actions over time that get you to where you want to go.”

“The ones who win show up every day. Success is lots of little actions over time that get you to where you want to go.”

Dean Marie Johnson, College of Natural Sciences & Mathematics

This is all the more significant in a field that requires innovation. Dean Johnson enthuses, “This is the fun part. When you go to college out of high school, you realize the answers aren’t in the back of the book. In research and many STEM fields, you realize you don’t even have the question – you come up with the question that you want to study or answer, and that’s very empowering.”

Dean Johnson’s own passion for science and research shines through as she details the beginnings of her own educational journey.

“I was a curious kid who liked learning how things worked,” Dean Johnson says. “I loved that there were patterns in what seemed like chaos. That’s what scientists do – make meaning out of chaos and data to find patterns and understand their meaning. I loved the puzzle aspect of being a scientist, and I had a faculty member who believed in me and made me think I could do it.”

By the time students complete their own NSM story, they’ll have received an advanced, robust education and gained skills and tools that can take them anywhere they wish to go. The NSM story is one of inspiration, courage, determination, challenges, rewards, and a thriving desire to be a force of positive change – producing well-rounded graduates who are ready to shape the world of tomorrow.

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