Dr. James Holland’s legacy in STEM, IU continues through namesake programs

When Dr. James P. Holland passed away in 1998, he left a long legacy at Indiana University, the institution where he received his master’s and Ph.D. degrees, taught for 30 years, and made an impact on scores of students.

Today, his name lives on through the Hudson & Holland Scholars Program (also named for Dr. Herman C. Hudson, another legendary IU Bloomington professor) and a trio of programs for high school students: The James Holland Summer Enrichment Program (SEP), the James Holland Summer Science Research Program (SSRP), and the James Holland Research Initiative in STEM Education (RISE).

Holland established SEP to give promising and high-performing underrepresented minority students with a desire to explore the STEM fields and take a deeper dive into the world of science. As time went on, he tapped one of his former IU students, Mary Ann Tellas, to help him run the program.

“When I took my biology class freshman year, I was struck by Dr. Holland. He was very knowledgeable and just enjoyed sharing that knowledge with his students. He took a great interest in his students. Even long after I took his course, he still maintained contact and was interested in where I was in my studies, and how I was doing,” recounted Tellas, a Bloomington native who received a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in science education from IU.

“When I started teaching, he contacted me and said, ‘I started a program and I’d like you to be a part of it.’ I was honored that he even remembered who I was and on top of that, wanted me to be part of the program he started.”

Armin Moczek and Mary Ann Tellas

Tellas, who teaches high school biology in the Indianapolis area, developed the second-year component of the program, SSRP—originally known as the Eli Lilly Scholars Program—with her co-director, Armin Moczek, a professor in IU’s biology department. Moczek, a native of Germany, shares Tellas’ passion and last summer, they added RISE, a third-year program. Through these programs, students get a progressively deeper exposure to such disciplines as biology, physics, molecular and cellular biochemistry, math, statistics, geology, and atmospheric sciences.

SEP is a weeklong program that introduces underrepresented minority students from across the state (and even beyond), typically rising high school freshmen and sophomores, to lectures, labs, and hands-on activities like field trips and tours of local science-related companies. Student selection involves an application process that includes their grades, teacher recommendations, and an essay about why they want to be in the program, why there’s a lack of minorities in the STEM fields, and how the issue can be addressed. Tellas described the essays as “difficult to read,” because of the personal nature of the responses, and how students demonstrate their awareness of the implications behind the lack of diversity in STEM.

SSRP consists of students who are invited back from the first-year program, and focuses on research. Students are paired with a faculty mentor in an IU laboratory and work on a research project, and at the end of the week, the young researchers present their findings in a poster conference in front of family and the IU community—as the first-year students arrive on campus for SEP, giving them an aspirational goal.

It isn’t like we took students who somehow weren’t academically capable and turned them around. I always tell them. I’m proud of them, but not surprised.

Mary Ann Tellas

Meanwhile, RISE targets rising high school seniors and gives the students a more direct connection to IU, as they get a more in-depth look at potential STEM careers during the two-week program. By working with both faculty and current IU students, they are able to experience the various disciplines and undergraduate research opportunities available to them on campus, should they choose to spend matriculate at IU, completing the pipeline between early high school and the university.

“It’s still a small set of programs, but they’re terrific and they can easily compete nationwide with the best programs there are. Anyone can put together a program, but very few have managed to demonstrate that students that enter the pipeline and work through the programs end up pursuing careers in STEM,” explained Moczek, who grew up in a blue-collar section of Munich and was the first in his family to graduate from college.

“There’s good evidence and published studies that show when you try to quantify when underrepresented minorities lose interest in STEM in a potential career, it’s late middle school or early high school. So, when we concentrate efforts on undergrads or early graduate school, that completely misses the boat. If you want to attack when most attrition happens, you have to start much earlier.

“Second, there are many good studies out there that show that single exposures are not sufficient. There’s a reason why underrepresented minorities feel that STEM environments have no home for them, and that’s because they are not given the opportunity to form what we call a ‘STEM identity.’ To form that, ideally you want to have a couple of years of exposure to it,” he continued.

“We can’t quite do that, but what we can do is create repeat exposures and change the perspective of each exposure. For example, you come in as a ninth-grader in the first-year program as part of a larger class and all of you engage in the same activities. But then you return as a rising 10th- or 11th–grader in the second-year program, and you are embedded individually within a research lab that nurtures you, but also pushes you.”

The numbers bear out Moczek’s beliefs, as all 82 students who have participated in both SEP and SSRP since 2008 and have responded to surveys about their educational progress (that number doesn’t include the program participants who are still in high school) have enrolled in some post-secondary institution. Thirty of those students enrolled on an IU campus, while 56 majored in a STEM field, 45 have graduated from a two-year or four-year institution, 28 have graduated with a degree in STEM, and nine have graduated from medical school or graduate school.

“But it isn’t like we took students who somehow weren’t academically capable and turned them around,” stressed Tellas, a winner of the 2017 IU Bloomington Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Building Bridges Award. “When the kids come here, to the program, sometimes it’s the first time they feel their intelligence is validated. We do a workshop on minorities in science and the kids will say, ‘This is the first time I get a chance to just breathe and be with kids who are just like me, who are just as smart as me, and not feel that I have to be ashamed of it or prove to somebody else that I am that smart.’ I’ve been really pleased with what I’ve seen in these kids. I always tell them. I’m proud of them, but not surprised.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration; Building Bridges award winners

Moczek added: “What I really like about our students is that they quickly become unintimidated by the task at hand when given a chance to work on it for a while. I then often see that students are surprised that they are working on something to which there is no answer yet, unlike when they’re in school. Once they internalize that, they get really excited by the fact that, yes, they’re contributing to the forming edge of their discipline.

“The thing that I stress when I talk to new departments we’re trying to get on board is this is not remediation, it’s talent identification. These are fantastic students. The moment they’re in SSRP, the second-year program, they’re all college-bound. They’re going to go places, and it’s more about whether we can be a good home for them and convince them to come here. We have no illusions; we don’t think anybody can be a great scientist if you just put enough resources into them. No, talent is the overriding factor. But the next great scientist—the next Neil De Grasse Tyson or Marie Curie—they can come from anywhere, and right now we just happen to not look everywhere. Here is a set of programs that has now proven itself in terms of identifying high-performing students, helping them to establish a STEM identity, and then nurturing their involvement until they come to college and beyond.”

Anyone can put together a program, but very few have managed to demonstrate that students that enter the pipeline and work through the programs end up pursuing careers in STEM.

Armin Moczek