Initial Publication Date: April 1, 2016

Pathways to Institutional Change

In the late 1980s several Grinnell faculty members began conversing about their observation of a pattern that domestic students of color had a far lower success rate in our introductory science courses than students at large. That conversation became more focused when the dean appointed an institution-wide "Minority Student Retention Committee." Data analysis helped us to understand that we really did not have a retention problem at the college, but a retention problem in the sciences, and that risks for poor performance not only included students of color but first-generation college students, and risks for lack of retention in science extended to women in physical and computational sciences.

At about the same time we began to have local conversations parallel to national ones to seriously think about the ways that we were teaching our introductory courses. The chair of the science division surmised that one way to get the ball rolling was to get division faculty together to think and talk about ways in which we might improve our introductory courses. It was also important that this be a division-wide effort, so that departments and faculty would feel supported as they struggled to change. We decided the way to start was to establish a Science Division Curriculum Seminar. With financial support from the dean's discretionary fund, we assembled a seminar program which met roughly monthly for about a year and a half. In those seminars we did a number of things, including listen to invited speakers, talk about innovative and venturesome courses elsewhere, discuss provocative materials on learning styles which we had read, and share our own experiences in teaching introductory courses, both successes and failures. A common thread of the seminars is that they were informal and the main venue was discussion. Serving coffee and cookies helped to set the tone and to entice faculty to attend.

It thus became quite clear that these two efforts, the effort to improve introductory science courses and the examination of the performance of ethnic minority students, were in fact addressing the same problem, and the efforts needed to merge. Nothing focused this discussion better than the opportunity to write a grant proposal, and the Lilly Endowment provided just such an opportunity. The college received an invitation to submit a proposal under the Lilly Endowment's Multicultural Initiative and decided to focus on trying to improve our track record in educating scientists who are members of ethnic minority groups. We ultimately received funding from the Lilly Endowment, the National Science Foundation in their Undergraduate Course & Curriculum Program, and GTE in their Focus Program. The whole process was quite participatory with lots of discussion, and we by no means knew what we were going to do when we started. The dean and president were regularly encouraging and provided institutional funding to help match the grant funding. The faculty, however, felt supported in trying to assess some problems and conduct some experiments with the curriculum, but also knew that there were both internal and external high expectations. This was the launch of what we now call the Grinnell Science Project.

Not all things changed at once, and like research, some things worked and some did not. However, we learned from those which did not work and kept experimenting. We encouraged individual faculty members to try things, sometimes as one credit add-on courses, sometimes as non-major courses, sometimes in one section of a multi-section introductory course. Physics decided to implement a pilot of the emerging "workshop physics" approach. Soon students began asking chemistry, "If physics can do that, why can't you?" For different reasons, biology, computer science, math, and psychology made dramatic changes in their curriculum and pedagogy. We began to use peer mentors in our courses to not only assist with content but to explicitly talk to students how to effectively study science. We continued to share with one another the successes and lack thereof. A general culture built where the norm was reflection and continuous improvement, and it was not sufficient to just serve our highest-achieving students; we had to help all students to excel.

One critical aspect of the project was a week-long pre-orientation program for new students who were going to enter Grinnell College and fit our profile of risk. That program was led by a faculty member and a student life professional and involved about a dozen other faculty members in leading activities. We quickly decided that it helped to have two faculty directors to carry the load. Most of the early leaders transitioned to other positions, and those who remained developed a transition strategy to support some who had participated into more and more responsible leadership positions. Within about a decade all the original zealots had transitioned out and others had ably replaced them. New faculty members who joined the science departments were invited into smaller roles and some evolved to major leadership. Thus the program became "owned" by the science division.

All these changes led to a significant impact upon our two-phase science renovation and expansion. Teaching labs were designed to more closely resemble research labs. Classrooms were designed for more flexibility and group work. Commons areas for students to work and study were prioritized, and tables and chairs were sprinkled in corridors throughout the building—in part to be inviting to students who are in their first and second years, and might feel like they do not belong, so that they did not have to be brave enough to barge into a space they might think was "owned" by others. These changes have created a wonderful sense of community among our students from the beginning of their Grinnell careers through graduation.

In 2011, after about twenty years, the program was recognized as one of the two programmatic Presidential Awards for Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Mentoring. Today we cannot imagine Grinnell College without the Grinnell Science Project, including the pre-orientation program, the curricular and pedagogical changes, and regular assessment and reflection.

As we reflect upon the past twenty-five years of intentional, but evolutionary change, we learned these critical lessons:

  • There needs to be a clear reason for change and a metric for knowing whether you were successful in achieving the goal. For instance, grades in introductory science courses for first-generation college students are markedly below those of the general student population. After the change, that deficit will be reduced. Alternately students taking introductory chemistry learn to do some computations, but have no sense of what the discipline of chemistry offers society, and after the change, students will have a better sense of the nature of chemistry.
  • Data analysis can help to understand the problem and also to mobilize proponents and neutralize skeptics who deny a problem exists. Such analysis can also shed light on issues that no one really understands. For instance, we found at Grinnell that high school performance and standardized exam scores did not predict difficulties with introductory math and science courses, but environmental factors such as being a first-generation college student, a domestic student of color or graduating from high schools where fewer than half the students go on to enroll in college, were predictors of poor performance.
  • Change needs to respond to institutional mission and strategic directions (whether formal or not). You may need to help set that strategic direction or to help leadership recognize how your proposed improvements tie into it.
  • You need to have some early zealots who can try things and then evangelize. It is unlikely that you will be successful in starting by trying to get everyone on board, but if things go well they will see the boat headed in a great direction and want to get on board.
  • Students are vectors of change. Students experiencing a wonderful and exciting approach in biology may well lobby for similar changes in chemistry.
  • Starting with external grant funding helps not only to fund start-up efforts, but forces you to focus and articulate goals, approach, etc. It helps to design a strategy so that grant funds gradually provide less funding and other funds (reallocation of institutional funds through standard budget processes, an endowment gift, etc.) gradually become more important. It is often hard to keep a project going when a grant supports the project fully for several years, and then ends and all of a sudden internal funds need to replace them.
  • Having external individuals talk about interesting and successful similar projects helps you figure out what you might do and how to do it, and it lends credibility to the efforts. It is hard to say that YYY cannot be done if someone has, in fact, done it. Most important curricular and pedagogical problems have been addressed before, and finding out where and how helps a lot. Working with peers at other institutions on similar projects provides motivation (peer pressure) and moral support.

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