Derek Dang giving a thumbs-up.


University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL

Derek is originally from Mobile, Alabama. He is of Vietnamese decent, with both grandparents and parents born there. He enjoys cooking and baking Vietnamese dishes as a way to preserve his heritage and culture.

Derek grew up speaking both English and Vietnamese, but eventually developed a new passion, the Spanish language. Since then, his love for people and culture has grown into an interest in the humanities, which he hoped to pursue along with his path in STEM.

“I have crafted my education around what I enjoy learning the most: what makes each of us unique and how our brains interact with the world around us,” Derek said. Early on, he volunteered at a summer camp for those with disabilities (mental and physical) where he first recognized the importance of inclusivity in different areas of life. “I’m interested in using science to better understand how the brain works, but I’ve come to realize that there are great disparities among different groups of people, especially in the classroom,” he concludes.

During his STEM courses, and despite his A grades and successes, Derek found a disconnect between classroom instruction and the research field. It was then that he sought to diversify his research interests, venturing into STEM education to investigate how to improve the student experience in STEM.

He was grateful to find the RIT REU research experience working with Dr. Dina Newman and Dr. Kate Wright, who are interested in student understanding of molecular biology and genetics concepts.

Together, they developed a project to examine undergraduate responses on tests and surveys, as well as textbook materials to see whether the focus is on processes or outcomes. Preliminary results suggest that students focus on outcomes (“what” happens) rather than on the underlying processes (“how” and “why” it happens). This work can be applied to help instructors understand why their students often miss the mark during discussion and on exams and to design better lessons and assessments that encourage students to focus on the deeper concepts.