Pathways to Institutional Change
Change sometimes comes slowly. In the early '90s Bryn Mawr College pioneered the adoption of the Internet as a teaching resource in biology, at a time when the "World Wide Web" was still in the early stages of development. Even though we got an early start, our use of educational technologies grew slowly. It was not until 2010, for example, that the provost pushed to make technology in the classroom an institutional priority, funding for such change was sought, and support positions created. Following several grants and focused effort, Bryn Mawr is now considered a leader in the area of blended learning in the liberal arts, with a dedicated Office of Educational Technology Services. What's the lesson? Institutional buy-in, leadership, and appropriate support are often a limiting factors, so seek these early.
Institutional change requires institutional support. Previous attempts to modify STEM curricula at Bryn Mawr have sometimes proceeded slowly due to staffing issues. For example, three years ago we were able to move toward smaller, theme-based courses with smaller class sizes in our introductory biology sequence. This required more faculty resources, however, making the change vulnerable at first. As another example, a recent course offered jointly by the departments of biology and computer science was delayed and then made possible only when faculty staffing became available in computer science.
The history of our Summer Science Research Program is also instructive. Prior to our first HHMI grant in 1988, the college offered a small summer science research program, entirely funded by external institutional and faculty research grants, which provided approximately twenty students with stipends to conduct ten-week mentored independent research under the guidance of Bryn Mawr faculty. Over the years, HHMI funding allowed us to double the number of summer stipends and strengthen the program by incorporating activities designed to promote the professional development of young researchers and create a sense of community among participants. In 2001, the college began institutionalizing its commitment to undergraduate research by allocating funds from the operating budget for thirty-five summer stipends annually. Today, the college uses institutional funds to support forty summer research stipends, supplemented by five to ten additional stipends from faculty research grants and other outside sources.
Let institutional change be driven by student need. Bryn Mawr is committed to enrolling a socioeconomically and ethnically diverse population of women and this means that some of our students, notably those who come from weaker high schools, may face challenges when they first encounter college-level mathematics. To ensure quantitative literacy upon graduation we instituted a "quantitative requirement" for all of our students. To ensure quantitative readiness for students entering gateway STEM courses, we also created a supplementary course designed to assist students with marginal mathematics preparation. Initially this course was optional and taught by dedicated instructors. After the first year we realized that the course should be mandatory for students with low math ACT and SAT scores, and that we needed to directly involve faculty from the STEM departments in the course, using discipline-specific examples as context for the math. The latter was crucial to changing student perception of the course as a remedial intervention to an asset for students wishing to pursue STEM. More recently, we have realized that many students would benefit more from quantitative supports embedded within gateway courses, so as not to delay students from entering such courses. As a result we are working to develop online modules for this purpose as part of the Just-In-Time, Blended Mathematics Fundamentals to Improve STEM Completion Project.
Our faculty recognize that helping students to realize their personal and professional goals requires a structure to connect students to non-academic opportunities, both on and off campus, in the form of workshops, trainings, internships and externships. Faculty also recently identified a need to combine these opportunities with the resources of the existing offices of Career and Professional Development and the Office of Civic Engagement. Out of this discussion emerged our new Leadership, Innovation, and Liberal Arts Center (LILAC), which now provides access to experiential learning, career and professional development, and civic engagement under a single structure, improving student access to these resources.
Collaborate with other departments to achieve curricular goals. At Bryn Mawr College, physics and computer science faculty collaborated to write and implement a sequence of online, notebook-based, computational skills learning modules that were flexible enough to be deployed throughout the physics major course sequence as part of the TIDES Project. The technical expertise of the computer science faculty, along with the content knowledge of physicists, allowed this project to break free of the traditional course-based approach to building computational skills, thereby fostering a truly integrated approach to computational instruction in physics with the potential to be used by all of our natural science faculty.