INSPIRES Graduate Student Spotlight: Anupam Raj

By Stefania Irene Marthakis

Anupam Raj is a third-year graduate student as well as a research assistant in the Master of Science in Teaching (MST) program through the Maine Center for Research in STEM Education (RiSE Center) at the University of Maine (UMaine).

Raj is advised by Michael Wittmann (Professor of Physics) as well as Franziska Peterson (Assistant Professor of Mathematics and RiSE Center Graduate Coordinator) and Asli Barrie (Associate Professor of Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction), collectively forming his graduate committee.

With a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Physics from his home country of India, Raj found the best of both worlds in terms of research and teaching through the RiSE Center’s MST program. Raj taught at Aakash Institute in Kashmir and participated in a research project at the University of Illinois. Through empirical study during his master’s, Raj decided to focus on teaching rather than research.

“I like to interact with people and be more creative in my work, so teaching seems to have those things apart from the logical and critical aspects,” Raj explained.

“There’s room for creativity in the way you present your lesson plan; there’s room for more human interaction.”

Raj has served as a teaching assistant in both UMaine’s Mathematics and Physics departments. As a research assistant at the RiSE Center, Raj contributes to the RiSE Center’s mission on improving research and research-based practice of STEM education by attending weekly meetings, doing literature reviews, and assisting with teacher interviews by transcribing, analyzing, and participating in discussions about questionnaires and programs through the NSF EPSCoR RII Track-2 INSPIRES project.

Raj was drawn to the impact factors of INSPIRES, which include educating the community about the project’s research and incorporating Quantitative Reasoning in Context (QRC), forestry topics, Big Data, and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) that will directly support lesson development for classrooms of STEM teachers across Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

Beyond technological innovations, Raj believes it is paramount for the community to understand what the researchers are doing and to keep that communication line open, especially regarding novel approaches. INSPIRES and RiSE aim to provide a rare opportunity through their teacher training program—especially in a science-based research project—for teachers to act as researchers: develop and test their own hypothesis as well as collect data from across the Northern Forest Region alongside INSPIRES project members of different disciplines.

“I think as a science teacher I’m always going to help my students to see the power of data and data analysis, and how mathematical thinking can help you to see beyond antidotal evidence and be able to analyze situations in a better way. It’s like a sixth sense on how I see it, you have five senses to collect natural sensory data and then you make your decisions, but then there’s a sixth sense called mathematical sense,” Raj stated.

The RiSE Center focuses on what the teachers are currently doing in the classroom and what they want to change about their practice using a tailored approach throughout all their projects and programs.

Together, INSPIRES researchers, RiSE staff, and UM faculty as well as graduate students like Raj, communicate the collective importance of scientific research and STEM education by bringing in outside people, ideas, resources, and locations. This community component introduces vitality to STEM curricula.

After Raj graduates in August 2022, he will teach at Excel High School, a high-need title 1 school in the Boston Public School district. Age and location have a particular importance to Raj’s teaching plans.

“When I was in high school, I was the most motivated version of myself, so I feel like that’s a time when you’re transitioning from being a child who doesn’t know what to do to being an adult. Your value system is being shaped at that time, influencing what you choose. The kind of dreams you form will stay with you for the rest of your life. It is a crucial time to give people more information, more guidance in some way to make better choices,” Raj concluded.