Developing Inquiry Skills

Bryn Mawr's science programs enable students to develop inquiry skills by participating in mentored independent research projects, as paid interns during the summer and for academic credit during the academic year, and by incorporating inquiry-based pedagogies, experiential learning, and open-ended laboratory experiments into coursework.

Mentored Independent Research. Bryn Mawr College's Summer Science Research (SSR) program provides undergraduate students with stipends to conduct research with Bryn Mawr faculty mentors during the summer. The program, which runs for ten weeks, also incorporates a variety of professional development activities, including workshops on ethics and science writing, presentations by outside speakers, and a campus-wide poster session. Previously, funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) allowed Bryn Mawr to strengthen and expand its on-campus SSR program from approximately twenty to forty students each summer. The college is no longer dependent on outside funding to sustain the SSR program, as it is now fully funded through endowment income and the college's institutional operating budget. In addition, these forty stipends are supplemented each summer by five to ten additional stipends, supported by faculty research grants or other outside sources, meeting most of the need given Bryn Mawr's small size (~1,300 students). Rather than expanding capacity beyond the program's current size, the provost and science faculty have identified broadening student access to summer research opportunities as the highest priority for the SSR program. Current demographics among our students have meant that an increasing number of successful applicants must decline the opportunity to participate in SSR because they must seek higher-paying summer jobs. Bryn Mawr's current efforts are focused on building funds into the institutional SSR budget to provide each participant with a living allowance in addition to the stipend.

The college's most recent three HHMI grants additionally allowed us to broaden the scope of paid summer options in the sciences by offering five to eight off-campus Science Horizons Research Internships, which afford students the ability to pursue types of research experiences that are not available on campus (i.e., experiences in industry and government labs, research universities, and medical centers). In addition, Bryn Mawr's new Leadership, Innovation, and Liberal Arts Center (LILAC) is enhancing and expanding the personal and professional development opportunities available to students, with the goal of helping them to become effective, self-aware leaders in their chosen pursuits. Going forward, LILAC will be responsible for coordinating and providing oversight for all off-campus internships (including STEM-related internships), enabling students to forge connections between their classroom-based STEM knowledge and the world beyond Bryn Mawr.

Bryn Mawr uses two different survey instruments to assess the impact of its on-campus and off-campus summer research experiences. Science Horizons students and mentors complete an in-house questionnaire developed by Research for Better Schools. In addition, undergraduate researchers complete the national SURE III Survey. Data from these surveys suggest that the summer program both solidifies pre-existing commitments to a science career or strengthens a potential interest in graduate study. The largest learning gains reported by students include understanding the research process, being able to explain scientific concepts to another person, having the ability to approach problems with flexibility, creativity, and confidence, and readiness for more demanding research.

Course-based Inquiry Skills. All six of the college's previous HHMI grants have directly supported the development of at least twenty-five courses in the fields of biology, computer science, mathematics, physics, and psychology, all of which were designed to foster inquiry skills through the inclusion of open-ended problems and experiments. The impact of HHMI funding over the span of twenty-seven years has indeed transformed the STEM curriculum at Bryn Mawr such that inquiry-based learning experiences are now incorporated into nearly all currently offered science courses. One of our innovations was to transform a 1950s-era introductory teaching laboratory into a combined, flexible, classroom-laboratory space to facilitate the implementation of interactive, group, and hands-on teaching practices in entry-level biology courses. Student surveys on the teaching practices of their instructors before and after the renovations indicate that the renovated space indeed fostered faculty use of the latter.

Bryn Mawr's Praxis Program is an experiential, community-based learning program that integrates theory and practice through student engagement in relevant fieldwork that is integrated with academic coursework. Praxis courses and independent study options provide additional academic-credit bearing opportunities for STEM students to develop inquiry skills by engaging with real world problems through field placements at local organizations. Examples of recent Praxis courses with two to seven hours of fieldwork per week include Math Modeling and Sustainability, Educational Psychology and Nutrition, Smoking and Cardiovascular Health. Examples of recent STEM-themed Praxis independent study courses (eight to ten hours of fieldwork per week) include Applications of Biostatistics with a field placement at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing; Examining Older Adults with Cognition Disorders with a field placement at Mainline Adult Day Care; and Diabetes: Biochemistry, Clinical Research and Global Health with a field placement at the Temple University Center for Obesity Research and Education.