The Grinnell Science Project

Grinnell College
Jim Swartz, SWARTZ@Grinnell.EDU


The Grinnell Science Project (GSP) was created in the early 1990s to address a problem indicated by data we gathered about Grinnell students. It was found that students—particularly those of color, women, and first-generation college students¾were entering Grinnell College with an avowed interest in pursuing degrees in the sciences, but abandoning their academic goals when they failed to do well in introductory sciences courses. Based upon our data analysis, we concluded that the factors interfering with academic success in the sciences were more likely to be social than academic. Our intervention strategy, then, needed to be more focused on social issues than on academic remediation. We developed a program aimed at addressing three barriers to success in the sciences experienced by students we identified as members of groups that are under-represented in the sciences: unsuccessful acclimation to college life; learning styles that do not respond to traditional pedagogy; and a lack of mentoring and role models. Drawing on national studies and efforts, we developed a program aimed at addressing three barriers to success in the sciences. To address these issues, the program now called the Grinnell Science Project was devised over a series of years. It has involved curricular changes, activities and structures that foster acclimation to college life and a community of scientists, and improvement of student achievement.

Program Elements

The Grinnell Science Project includes program objectives designed to respond to each barrier:

  • To foster acclimation to college life through providing a Pre-orientation;
  • To respond to different learning styles through creating Interactive science/mathematics courses and increased opportunities for mentored research;
  • To provide role models and contexts for the study of science through mentoring and Community building.

Pre-orientation. We designed a one-week pre-orientation, intended to build confidence and to alleviate the anxieties of the first year, since these may provide an uncomfortable campus climate for a student and hinder his or her academic performance. This pre-orientation is held the week preceding Grinnell's general orientation for new students. Using the students' college applications and their transcripts, we look at risk factors for poor performance in introductory science courses (none of which involve academic preparation) and select 70-90 students who indicate an interest in science on their application. These selected students are invited to participate in the GSP pre-orientation after they have accepted admission at the College. This has resulted in participation of 25-35 students in the early years and 40-45 in recent years. The selection of these targeted students is based on their being one or more of the following:

  • a first generation-college student;
  • a graduate of a high school where fewer than half the graduates enrolled in college;
  • a domestic student of color; and/or
  • a woman interested in physical and computational sciences.

The aims of the pre-orientation include:

  • providing a student cohort in which relationships and a support network may be built;
  • creating supporting relationships between students and a variety of science faculty;
  • acquainting students and helping them to feel comfortable with an array of support services the College provides;
  • identifying particular academic or writing weaknesses; and
  • helping students become comfortable with the campus geography, the library, the computers, and residential life.

The GSP pre-orientation students and their families, many of whom are involved in college education for the first time, have the opportunity to meet other students, learn about the services and structures of the college, and meet faculty. Since the target population consists of students who express an interest in science and mathematics, they come with common interests. These students meet faculty members who teach introductory science and mathematics courses and hear faculty expectations for students in these courses. Students also participate in faculty-led sample classes and a research-like project. Additionally, faculty members participate in many of the social events, starting by dining with the students and the families when they arrive on campus. The burdens of adjusting to the many new demands made on the students are relieved by the personal attention they receive during the pre-orientation. Furthermore, the participants feel like "experts" when other new students arrive, and can offer directions and advice to them, further bolstering their confidence.

Curricular and Pedagogical Changes.The curricular and pedagogical development component of the program has aimed at changing the basic fabric of introductory courses by providing faculty members with a nurturing environment, mentoring, and the intensive development time they need to make such changes. The goals of our curricular and pedagogical changes are to provide challenging, not remedial, problems which engage the students in hands-on investigation and mutual realization of the solutions and to respond to different learning styles. We started with several experiments. We launched a series of one-credit, add-on courses that students could co-enroll in with the standard introductory courses. These one-credit courses provided students with interactive ways of learning material, and provided platforms both for more engaged learning by students who wanted some additional work, and for pedagogical experimentation by faculty. In addition, one faculty member decided to experiment with a variation of the workshop (no lecture) physics approach pioneered by Priscilla Laws, and the entire computer science (CS) faculty decided to transform their introductory courses into a workshop format.

After two to three years, faculty members became convinced that learning improved dramatically as a result of these experiments. As a result, the engaged pedagogies were integrated into the standard courses, and the one-credit courses were abolished. In physics, roughly half the students now opt for the workshop format and half in the more standard lecture-lab approach. The first course in CS is taught entirely in the workshop format, and substantial portions of many other CS courses use active learning approaches. Where many Computer Science departments continue to disallow students working together, thereby discouraging students who value teamwork, our curriculum encourages teamwork. Some chemistry sections are taught entirely in a workshop format and others use many engaged learning techniques, including research-like projects and learning in the context of a social problem (global warming, water quality, etc.). Psychology and mathematics also use a number of engaged learning approaches. In all, these changes promote increased levels of mentoring at all levels for the curriculum.

The introductory biology course is entirely based on a research project. Where many biology departments are struggling to fit more and more material into the introductory course, and only a few have even broached the idea of workshop-style teaching, Grinnell's Biology Department has decided that the most important learning outcome of the introductory course is to get students to "think like a biologist." Students in the introductory course read original research papers, design and conduct their own experiments, analyze data, and present results in forms appropriate to the discipline, including posters and research papers.

By participating in science education that is structured in a fashion much more like science is practiced, students are engaged in the practice of science and the relationship with the instructor becomes a mentor-apprentice relationship.

Mentoring and Community Building.A primary tool for accomplishing the goals of the program was weaving a "web of mentoring," not only close mentoring of students by their teachers, but also student to student and faculty to faculty (who support one another as they try pedagogical experiments). Curricular and pedagogical changes are both substantial and nearly universal. The GSP was also greatly influential in the design of new science facilities at Grinnell College. While the initial impetuous for the effort came from some key individuals, the execution and continuous improvement lies within virtually all science faculty. This high level of involvement, including curricular development, community building activities, and mentoring, insures sustainability.


By promoting student achievement and excellence in teaching and learning, the Grinnell Science Project addresses the issue of increasing the diversity of the STEM workforce, using a range of activities all of which are rooted in intensive mentoring and building a community of scientists (students and faculty alike) that supports persistence in science through and after graduation:

  • Prior to the Grinnell Science Project, from 1992–1994, an average of 42 science majors graduated annually who were women and eight who were students of color. By 2008, those numbers had jumped to 90 women (a 114% increase) and 21 students of color (a 162.5% increase).
  • Over 500 students have participated in the pre-orientation program, and they earned higher average grades compared with those who were invited but did not attend.
  • Thousands of other students have benefited from the curricular and pedagogical changes, as well as from the mentoring relationships that have been established by GSP.
  • Nearly 70% of the College's science majors enter graduate degree programs. As reported by the National Science Foundation, Grinnell ranks eighth on a per-capita basis among all U.S. higher education institutions in producing science graduates who go on to pursue the Ph.D.