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A head for science
by Susan Rosenberg
New formula aims to give every Skidmore student an edge in tomorrow’s science-saturated world
To imitate a flying bird, you stick your arms out to the sides and flap them up and down, right? That’s what happened on the first day of Skidmore’s 300-level ornithology course when its professor, Corey Freeman-Gallant, invited his students to stand up and try it. But they’ll never do it that way again. Freeman-Gallant showed them how
it really works: your arms reach out to the sides, but then they move forward, come together in front of you, and open out again. That’s because flying birds, like Superman, lie out horizontally, not upright. Duh… Of course the students all knew that, but their human postural habits got the better of their clear thinking.
It was a simple pedagogical trick, but it delivered a memorable lesson in comparative anatomy, aerodynamics, and the perils of solipsism. Every such “aha!” moment helps retune the brain to be scrupulously objective in observation, to doubt and doublecheck, and to keep searching for insights, connections, and eurekas. That’s one reason behind Skidmore’s new initiative to strengthen not just its science programs but their role in the collegewide liberal-arts curriculum.
The other reason, says Freeman-Gallant, is that “we don’t have a choice. When you think about some of the biggest challenges facing us as a species, and as a planet—climate change, infectious disease, energy technology, resource competition—they all involve natural sciences.” His colleagues from virtually every discipline describe their mission similarly: Skidmore must prepare students to become informed world citizens, which means being able to lead, or at least follow critically, the pivotal scientific and technological developments of the twenty-first century.
To that end, a principal goal in the college’s strategic plan is to “strengthen the sciences to increase the number of science majors and enhance the science literacy of all Skidmore students.” The “Creative Thought, Bold Promise” campaign has earmarked $15 million of its $200 million goal for the cause. The result, as envisioned by a 2004 science-planning white paper, should shift “the curricular center of gravity within Skidmore, placing the sciences more squarely in the mainstream of our academic community.” Last October nearly every faculty member in chemistry, biology, physics, geosciences, neuroscience, psychology, environmental studies, exercise science, mathematics, and computer science joined in an all-day retreat to build on the white paper and work toward a unified vision statement for the future of the sciences at Skidmore. Hosting the retreat was Muriel Poston, dean of the faculty (and a plant scientist herself), who found it “awesome to get all those different perspectives on the table and to hear such consensus among them.”
FISHING IN DEEPER POOLS
In a typical year, about 90 Skidmore students are working toward a bachelor’s in a science major. The new initiative aims to push the number of declared majors closer to 140; that would raise the proportion of science majors on campus from about 12 to 22 percent, “a level that is much more comparable with our peer institutions,” according to the science planning document.
One route that’s already working is admissions. Physicist Jill Linz and others on the Admissions Science Task Force have helped brief the students who serve as campus tour guides for prospective applicants. They have also invited high-school science teachers from around the Northeast to attend Skidmore’s summer student-faculty research presentations, “so they can see firsthand what kind of science we do here and better advise their college-bound students.” Since 1998 the college has been offering five Porter Presidential Scholarships in Science and Mathematics to high-achieving freshmen. And just this year it received a $549,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to provide more aid for math and science students, particularly those from underrepresented groups.
So far, the Porter scholarships “have brought us some great students, even if they don’t all end up majoring in science,” says neuroscientist Hassan Lopez. “The more we recruit science students, the more our reputation will evolve so that we become known for strong sciences as well as for the strengths we’re already known for, like arts.” Biochemist Michelle Frey agrees: “Attracting science-minded students will enhance our student body overall.” Already in recent years Skidmore has been attracting higher-scoring, more academically sophisticated applicants in all fields of study. In the view of mathematician Mark Hofmann, associate dean of the faculty, “If we’re to keep fishing in that stronger pool, we need to offer a better-balanced curriculum.”
AN INTERDISCIPLINARY LEG UP
It’s old news that professional associations in the sciences are calling loudly for improved education and for more researchers, clinicians, and engineers. But a new note in their call these days is for multidisciplinary expertise. The National Research Council’s “Bio 2010” report wants to see “interdisciplinary thinking and work become second nature.” An integrative approach is also important to Project Kaleidoscope, a network of educators (including several at Skidmore) working urgently to improve undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and math programs.
Given its signature emphasis on interdisciplinary study, Skidmore had no hesitation in placing it front and center
in its science planning. “The image of the lone researcher working silently in her lab—that’s long gone. Science is very collaborative today, and some of the best work is being done at disciplinary and subdisciplinary intersections,” says bio-department chair Freeman-Gallant, who himself combines evolutionary, genetic, and behavioral biology in his ornithology research. Biochemist Frey points out that drug-delivery science uses physics as well as biology, chemistry, and informatics. And she was impressed that guest speaker Rita Colwell, the microbiologist and cholera expert who recently inaugurated Skidmore’s Distinguished Scientists Lecture Series, recounted her many collaborations with anthropologists, sociologists, and others outside the natural sciences. At Skidmore, Frey and colleagues envision team-taught courses where “our interactions and debates will model this kind of scholarly collaboration for our students. The more interdisciplinary our science programs, the more our students will stand out in the grad-school and job market.”
Freeman-Gallant says, “It’s not a case of ‘If we build it, they will come.’ Let me tell you, they’re already here!” When neuroscience and environmental studies were first offered as majors in 2002, he recalls, they immediately drew a sizable cohort of students. The current science strategy includes the launch of a third interdisciplinary science major, this one in biomolecular science, as soon as faculty positions can be filled and the curriculum officially approved. Freeman-Gallant says student interest in this biology-and-chemistry intersection is brisk. Chemist Steve Frey, citing the popularity of the existing molecular-bio and biochem concentrations, expects the new major to be immediately attractive. New faculty member Rachel Roe-Dale, an applied mathematician, can corroborate this student demand for interdisciplinary study: “I taught a course in mathematical modeling, which brought in students from all the science fields, and the word must have spread, because kids keep asking me when it will be offered again.”
It’s no accident that several recently hired faculty members are popular outside their departments. Freeman-Gallant explains, “In biology, we’ve been hiring with the strategic aim of gaining interdisciplinary capacity.” (At the same time, Mark Hofmann, the associate dean, insists that interdisciplinary initiatives will never overshadow the “pure” sciences. “You can’t have interdisciplinary programs without a solid foundation in the disciplines,” he says. Most everyone acknowledges the ongoing need for scientists who focus in particular disciplines.)
Perhaps “disciplinary lines are on some level just false, arbitrary boundaries,” suggests psychologist Holley Hodgins. “What really matters is the question you’re exploring,” she says. Like many at the science-planning retreat, she hopes that one day all Skidmore’s science departments can be housed together in one building or complex, to facilitate informal relationships that can naturally develop into scholarly collaborations. (On a scrap of paper she idly sketches a circular floor plan, with corridors radiating from a central common area.) Freeman-Gallant favors a “confetti” floor plan, in which offices and labs are clustered together according to research interest rather than department affiliation. Any united science building could provide for certain efficiencies—for example, consolidating the three animal labs now in Tisch Learning Center (psychology), the Sports Center (exercise science), and Dana Science Center (biology).
Regardless of architecture, Freeman-Gallant concludes, “Skidmore has an advantage over many other colleges, because we have the interdisciplinary experience and culture to do this right. So as we realize our new vision for the sciences, we’re actually embracing our institutional identity more and more.”
SHOULDER TO SHOULDER
Another distinctive asset of Skidmore’s sciences is their emphasis on student research. Freshmen sampling introductory courses can earn one extra credit by shadowing their professor in his or her lab, sophomores and juniors can engage in full three-credit research experiences and/or intensive summer collaborations, and seniors do capstone or thesis projects. Many professors assert that undergraduates at Skidmore typically do higher-level research, and earlier in their careers, than at major universities.
The only change being sought in the college’s research programs is to offer them to more students. Freeman-Gallant reckons that many peer colleges provide funding for more summer projects than Skidmore can currently support, but believes that Skidmore is already competitive in academic-year research. He says, “It’s not unusual for a faculty member here to be advising half a dozen students in research projects during the school year.” In neuroscience in 2002–03, for example, thirteen sophomores and juniors as well as fourteen seniors did independent research. (Perhaps the numbers reflect the career counseling of neuroscientist Hassan Lopez, who reveals, “One thing I try to scare my students about is the job market. If they get research experience now, they’ll be better prepared for grad school and the careers it can lead to.”) The science-planning document predicts more demand in future, especially as the sciences grow.
The trick will be to meet the demand without sacrificing quality. “We do real, cutting-edge research, not just cookbook labs from a textbook,” says Freeman-Gallant. And the results are real, cutting-edge, new knowledge. “It’s astounding how many of our students become co-authors of articles or presentations that are accepted in top-tier national or international research journals and professional meetings.” But guiding science scholarship at that level is time-consuming. And Freeman-Gallant notes that mentoring individual research students isn’t formally counted in faculty workloads, yet he and others consider it so crucial to student development that they’re willing to add it to their usual complement of teaching and publishing. Discussions are under way to change the workload calculus so that more professors can supervise more students in independent lab work.
Summer brings more freedom to focus on research—but again not for all comers. Students who rely on summer-job earnings to help defray school-year expenses may find the research stipend too small. The payment was increased recently, but that cuts both ways: because more students can now afford to participate in a summer collaboration, more are applying than can be funded.
To support all the students who propose worthy projects, either for the academic year or for the summer, the college is building a dedicated $2 million endowment. The fund’s income will help cover summer living costs, lab expenses, and travel to professional conferences. And it’s expected, over the next decade, to support a 50-percent increase in such projects.
That means an extra sixty or seventy students each year who can share the challenge and satisfaction recently witnessed by biochemistry professor Michelle Frey when her lab student, looking glum, told her, “This sucks. I can’t do science. Nothing I’ve tried has worked.” “Well,” she replied with her upbeat grin, “who ever told you it was supposed to work? Experiments not working is what science is—it’s how we get to new discoveries.” And now, she reports, this student “doesn’t ask me ‘What should I do next?’ Instead he tells me, ‘Here’s how I’m interpreting this data, so this is what I want to test next.’ I just dance around the lab on days like that. There’s nothing better than working shoulder to shoulder with students.”
The very nature of scientific discovery makes proficiency a moving target even for experts. Yet some basic “science literacy” is an urgent need for every nonscientist as well. As fast as scientists are driving new advances, technologies, dangers, and solutions, average voters are faced with new shining hopes, scandals and lawsuits, and political, social, even religious conundrums that are inextricably entwined with issues of science. Skidmore faculty at the science retreat deliberated long and hard about how to make good on their shared goal of ensuring science literacy for all students.
A fundamental question they tackled, says faculty dean Muriel Poston, is whether literacy teaching should impart the procedures of science or the content—that is, hands-on practice in the scientific method of inquiry or the intake of facts, figures, and formulas. In practical terms, should nonscience majors be required to take laboratory or just classroom courses? One or two? Standard science intro courses or others created expressly for nonmajors?
Further and wider discussion will precede any curricular decisions, but there’s broad consensus for exposing more students to more science than ever before. Exercise scientist Paul Arciero points to the New York Times: “You can hardly open any page on any day without finding science-related news that you need to understand and assess.” Neuroscientist Lopez points to the medicine cabinet: “So many people, including students, are on antidepressants or attention medications, or just drinking alcohol or caffeine, yet I’ve found they’re pretty naïve about how these drugs work. Everyone needs to know more about these substances.”
Some faculty suggest that literacy can be achieved by mixing scientific material into other courses. Several such cross-disciplinary hybrids are already popular, and Skidmore’s plan for the sciences calls for wider offerings. An ardent interdisciplinarity booster, geologist Kyle Nichols taught a freshman Scribner Seminar on Hollywood’s portrayal of science—the assumptions or fears or hopes conveyed, implicitly or explicitly, in popular movies. His class watched and discussed some of the movies jointly with other first-year seminars, like “The Nuclear Legacy” taught by physicist Bill Standish and “Life in the North Woods” taught by biologist Josh Ness. In improving science literacy, Nichols says, “our idea is not to require X number of courses, but to inspire students to want to take courses in which aspects of science blend naturally into the subject matter.” He adds, “I’ve talked to nonscience faculty members who are open to this too. We want to devise creative, informative, exciting new courses.”
Fellow interdisciplinarian Jill Linz teaches a physics-of-music course. Although it draws plenty of nonscience students, it still features laboratory time because, she says, “I can explain about sound waves, but the principles are brought home when students actually work with oscilloscopes and speakers.” Psychologist Holley Hodgins believes science literacy doesn’t require a lab course; it requires two. In her view, not only must all students learn by doing—“by applying the scientific method to a real question for themselves”—but they should do it in two different sciences, “so they can compare and see the links, to truly understand how the process works.”
In or out of the lab, “no student should ever think ‘Oh, I can’t do science,” says Pat Fehling, exercise-science professor. With the right teaching, she maintains, “all students can learn how to investigate, how to test a hypothesis. They don’t need to be afraid of it.”
MOMENTUM HAS IT OWN PHYSICS
Gather a few Skidmore science professors around a table and the energy resembles a NASA control room: they’re counting down and ready for liftoff. Since 2000 the college has added faculty in four science fields, opened a geographical information systems lab, improved microscope equipment, divided physics and chemistry into their own departments, and created new majors in environmental studies and neuroscience. Grants have been won to study community water resources, biodiversity and environmental issues, metals in living cells, gene regulation, and more. “We have such powerful momentum, from our faculty to the Tang Museum to research instrumentation… Now is a great time to move ahead,” says exercise scholar Arciero. His colleague Pat Fehling notes that since her arrival at Skidmore in 1993, enrollments in her introductory course have grown from fifteen or twenty to more like sixty. Likewise intro chem and bio courses now routinely exceed 100. Fehling comments, “This is a good problem to have; we’re exposing a lot of nonmajors to a science. The question is, How will we deliver this in the best way to all these eager learners?”
The solution is partly a matter of people power. The “Creative Thought, Bold Promise” campaign goal of $15 million for science allots $9 million for endowing four new faculty posts in interdisciplinary majors. (Interest income from each $2.25 million fund will provide a salary and research support in perpetuity.) A professor in environmental science has just been hired; another slot is for a biomolecular scientist; and two openings are earmarked for neuroscientists, one specializing in molecular development and the other in learning and memory. According to biologist Freeman-Gallant, initiatives to develop new interdisciplinary and team-taught courses and finalize the biomolecular major are on the launchpad, awaiting the faculty hires.
Skidmore’s science planners are hoping for a speedy countdown.
Editor’s note: For the complete interview with science faculty, click here.