Staff Q&A with Rashmi Kumar

Learning through memorizing is how some students succeed or excel in high school, but at Penn, rote learning doesn’t usually cut it.

By and large, the transition from high school to Penn requires a deeper level of academic rigor for which students are not always prepared.

When Penn students studying in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields need academic assistance, they often turn to Rashmi Kumar, learning instructor for STEM courses in the Weingarten Learning Resources Center.

Kumar, a former public school teacher and instructor and editor in the Graduate School of Education, says students often come to her not just for help with their studies, but to facilitate achievement.

“Students who are seeking consultations are planning or hoping to make their learning more effective, optimum, longer-lasting, and deeper,” she says. “It’s not about grades; it’s a lot about understanding and being effective participants in the class.”

Kumar designs learning strategies and visual templates for STEM students, and finds resources available at Penn and reputable outlets online to aid student academic success.

“For me, the biggest thing right now is how students practice what they have learned in class,” Kumar says. “I call it the practice of practice. I encourage students by challenging: ‘How do you know that what you heard in the class is something that you can share with me tomorrow? If you can teach the same concepts to me tomorrow, then you know you’ve understood well.’”

The Current sat down with Kumar in Stouffer Commons to discuss supporting STEM students, her interest in the STEM fields, her recent trip to Jordan, innovation and excellence in education, and the apparent growing popularity of STEM courses.

Q: What are some of your job responsibilities?
A: I work with students, staff, and faculty across the campus mostly focused in the STEM fields. Primarily, my engagement is with students from Wharton, from the Engineering School, the pre-health students in the College, and the health professional schools, which is the School of Medicine, the School of Dental Medicine, the School of Nursing, and the School of Veterinary Medicine.

Q: How do you get involved with students? Do they seek you out?
A: I think word-of-mouth is the biggest thing. Often, students who I’ve worked with this semester will tell me, ‘My friend worked with you three semesters ago; can you work with me?’ A lot of times it’s from faculty or adviser referrals. I conduct workshops throughout the campus. A lot of the students meet me for the first time through the workshops and then they’ll ask if they can meet with me on an individual level.

Q: Do you see more freshmen and sophomores than juniors and seniors?
A: Usually, I meet with more sophomores than juniors and seniors because it takes a student the first year to appreciate Penn expectations, the nature of Penn courses, how they are run, what needs to be done in order to be successful in them. Students who come to my office are ones who may have gone through maybe one or two semesters at Penn and now are seeking to revamp how they apply learning and what they make out of the classroom content. Many students who work with me are also graduate and professional students. The distribution among student groups has been split sometimes 50/50, varying semester to semester, and sometimes 60/40.

Q: How did you become interested in STEM education?
A: My background is in science and technology from the very beginning. My formative education was in science, then as a teacher in science and technology. I did my dissertation in STEM education. I could say it’s a lifetime commitment. Now it has become a passion of steering and supporting students in these disciplines. Numbers and patterns talk to me, and I would like to communicate that same passion in my work with students.

Q: I understand that you recently took a trip to Jordan at the invitation of Queen Rania for an educational conference that included attendees and experts from all over the world. How was the experience?
A: Jordan is a beautiful country. What I was impressed with was the commitment of the educators to bring innovation and excellence in their practices, and to that end, their knowledge was amazing. I had the privilege of meeting people who anchored in rich pedagogies. These were people who knew their fields, who knew their content, and who had a deep commitment towards empowering the youth in their countries. When we heard Queen Rania speak, who is very articulate, one could see the same level of inspiration and commitment in how she wants to change the educational and vocational opportunities for youth. I saw a similar sense of drive and empowerment among educators in India last summer. There is great interest in India to identify how technology can be meaningfully used in the classrooms. Technology is used all over the country for numerous daily and routine functions, but it has been relatively left out of many classrooms, perhaps because of concerns about passive versus active learners. I had wonderful discussions about how technology is an active learning source and how it can be used with diverse groups of students. It would be helpful if we could share curricular models that integrate technology within goals of active learning.

Q: You have conducted research on how parents can further their children’s STEM learning. What do you think parents can do to assist their children in the STEM fields?
A: One of the things that my research found was that play was the most important thing. Parents who gave children active toys like blocks and puzzles saw more indications that their children were not afraid of failure, and we know failure or persistence is a natural part of learning in STEM fields. Toys that allow experiences in failure leave a positive impact. The process of building a block again and again and letting it tumble and then picking it up again, those children, when they look back, say, ‘It didn’t bother me when my chemistry experiment in high school didn’t achieve the results I was looking for,’ or ‘I wasn’t afraid when I couldn’t put the circuit together the first time in my physics class in college because I always played with these kinds of toys where it didn’t matter to me whether I got it right or not, but I was doing it.’ That has been something that I have found, that parents who encourage failure when the children are young and who are willing to accept failure as a component of learning had good success in encouraging their children towards STEM fields, that is, if their children wanted to be in STEM fields. Failure didn’t become a stopping point, rather, it became a strong pathway into engagement and experimentation, and into immersing in various kinds of knowledge, whether it was going to yield success the same day or not.

Q: STEM courses seem to be increasing in popularity.
A: There is a great emphasis on STEM everywhere. If we think of Penn, it has always emphasized and illustrated the importance of STEM courses in everything that’s done on campus. At Penn, STEM has an interdisciplinary presence also. We have research that goes across the undergrad level, at the grad level, and all the professional schools, and we bring it together. I think one of the most interesting things is that any given day, you can open the Penn website and find that there is an interesting talk going on somewhere that is related to the STEM fields. Penn faculty, who have years of experience and expertise in STEM, bring innovative ideas and new ideas to the forefront each day.

Q: Do you think there has been a heightened focus on the STEM fields in recent years?
A: In the last two decades, we have seen a lot of emphasis shifting towards it, and yet in many ways, the emphasis has always been there. Everything that we do in industrial, educational, agricultural innovation is always tied to something that we have learned within the STEM fields. Legislatively, we’ve had a lot of renewed focus on STEM and we are also trying to diversify the people who are entering STEM fields. Yet, I don’t think that this is something new. I think we’ve done this for many decades. If you think about Sputnik, we’ve talked about [the STEM fields] since the years before I was born. It has been part of our economy and we go through cycles where we raise the focus and then we let the cycles flow out, and then we go through another cycle where there’s a heightened attention on it. It’s not something that’s new that has just come to our economy or thinking. I think it’s always been there. What is new is how we are arranging different disciplines within STEM together and making sense of them as a layered body of knowledge or an intertwined body of knowledge. I think that’s the exciting aspect of innovation that’s taking place in STEM—how we are making numbers speak to biology, and biology speak to chemistry, and business simultaneously address multiple fields in STEM. The cumulative and comprehensive focus is new. The individual fields within STEM have always been there and we have appreciated their significance.

Rashmi Kumar