Grinnell Science Project

Program Overview

Grinnell College strives to give all of its students the opportunity to excel in the sciences. One key component of our program's success is the Grinnell Science Project, established in 1992, which welcomes students from underrepresented populations to Grinnell with a pre-orientation program focused on the sciences and continues to support them with engaging introductory courses, peer mentoring and tutoring, and opportunities for hands-on research throughout their educations. Our faculty's commitment to ongoing curricular development and reform has also played a major role, facilitating radical redesigns of all of our introductory courses, the development of an internally-supported student-faculty research program, and the development of new programs and classes (including programs in biological chemistry and neuroscience as well as a host of cross-disciplinary courses). Finally, a culture of broad faculty ownership of our STEM education efforts has ensured that nearly all science faculty members have participated in these efforts and that the college values their commitment to high-quality, inclusive science education.

The Grinnell Science Project has resulted in a remarkable increase in the number of underrepresented students graduating with science majors and continues to inform our efforts to promote inclusive excellence in STEM education. Grinnell's redesigned introductory science courses have provided models for curricular reform in a number of our higher-level science courses and have even been models for inquiry-driven course design in non-science disciplines. These courses, as well as the biological chemistry major and neuroscience concentration, have proven to be extremely popular. The "buy-in" and broad ownership that our faculty express toward Grinnell's STEM education enhancement efforts have been the force behind all of our innovations thus far and continue to propel us forward to meet new challenges.

The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has helped us build upon the successes of the Grinnell Science Project by supporting further work to help students from underrepresented groups succeed in STEM fields; for example, our current HHMI grant helps these students weather the challenging intermediate years of their science major. HHMI funding has directly supported the development of the biological chemistry and neuroscience programs, supported curricular reforms to promote inquiry-driven learning in a variety of science courses, funded the development of cross-disciplinary courses, and contributed to our student-faculty research program (especially in providing opportunities for students from underrepresented groups to conduct research with faculty).

Cross-Cutting Themes

Increasing Persistence of All Students in STEM

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The Grinnell Science Project (GSP) was created in the early 1990s to address a problem indicated by data we gathered about Grinnell students. We found that students—particularly those of color, those graduating from high schools where fewer than half of the graduates entered college, and first-generation college students—were 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 science courses. In addition, women interested in physical and computational sciences performed well in introductory courses, but persisted less frequently than men. Based upon our data analysis, we concluded that the factors interfering with academic success in the sciences were more likely to be environmental and social than academic. Our intervention strategy, then, needed to be more focused on changing our pedagogy, helping them to feel like they are a part of the community, with support from faculty, staff, and peers, and on creating spaces that support those two goals than on traditional 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 underrepresented 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. Our hypothesis was that such changes would have a positive impact upon all students. 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 engaged faculty members in a continuous science division-wide program, and involved curricular changes, activities, and structures that foster a community of scientists, and improvement of student achievement. These efforts resulted in a Presidential Award for Math, Science, and Engineering Mentoring

Developing Inquiry Skills

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The science curriculum at Grinnell has been overhauled to incorporate best practices of engaged pedagogy, including an emphasis on students doing hands-on research incorporating experimental design, execution, analysis, and communication. Every discipline has undergone reform, including all introductory science courses, many intermediate- and advanced-level courses, and a student-faculty research program of mentored advanced projects. We have experimented with and implemented several workshop-formatted courses where lab and lecture sessions are integrated. One of the most dramatic revisions was the creation of a single one-semester introductory biology course. The course is required for students majoring in biology and biological chemistry, and recommended for non-scientists and for students preparing for careers in the health sciences. This inquiry-based course bypassed the impossible challenge of how to incorporate the explosion of new knowledge in biology into an introductory course by developing students' skills to perform work as scientists. Assessment includes transcript analyses, the Classroom Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) survey, comparison of responses to questions administered pre- and post-course, and alumni comments related to a Presidential award (PAESMEM) for the Grinnell Science Project. These measures indicate a high impact of this process-centered course that is taught in a workshop format linking lecture and lab.

Fostering Interdisciplinary or Integrative Learning

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Recognizing that important social problems require integrated approaches and complex problem-solving skills; building on the strong base of six traditional disciplines and in the context of an institutional strategic plan calling for more interdisciplinary courses, the Grinnell College Science Division has expanded its mission through several interdisciplinary curricular and research programs. With support from HHMI and other sources, we developed an integrative biological chemistry major and a neuroscience curriculum along with new cross-disciplinary courses on bioinformatics, neuroscience, reproductive technologies, environmental challenges and responses, policy analysis, and racism and genetics. By integrating strengths in our curriculum, and our existing faculty's areas of expertise, program development was conducted with sensitivity to institutional structure and minimizing long-term additional resources. A strong faculty development program including faculty–faculty tutorials, faculty taking each other's courses, and faculty workshops has been instrumental in developing, implementing, evaluating, and fine-tuning these activities. Research on the Integrated Science Curriculum (RISC) pre-course/post-course survey provides an efficient and effective measurement of activities associated with interdisciplinary learning and associated student reported learning outcomes.

Pathways to Institutional Change

More about this themeIn 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.

Funding Acknowledgment

Funding for the work described on these Grinnell College pages has been provided by the grants below as well as substantial contributions from the College.

Arthur Vining Davis: $200K for BIO150 lab construction in 2006.

GTE Foundation: $30K in 1992 to support minority students in STEM/New Science Project; $30K in 1993, $30K in 1995.

HHMI: Four consecutive grants (2000, 2004, 2008, 2012) to Grinnell College from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute through the Undergraduate and Graduate Science Education Program.

Lilly Endowment: $150K in 1992 in support of New Science Project.

Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: $965K in 2007 for "EKI I" grant (so far as I can tell, all Mellon-EKI support happened on EKI I, nothing on EKI II).

NSF: $148,683 for the New Science Project in 1994 (DUE-9354785) and $196,883 for the NSP in 1996 (DUE-9652147). $40K in 1994 for overhauling four math/CS courses to promote inquiry-based learning (DUE-9451972). 1995 ChemLINKS consortial grant (DUE-9455918). $20,616 for workshop physics in 1995 (DUE-9552092). $275K in 1996 to renovate physics facilities, integrating research with education (OIA-9602325). $75K in 1998 for bio course reform (DUE-9950289). $500K in 1998 for AIRE award (OIA-9873774). $97,430 in 2005 for integrating active learning into stats courses (DUE-0510392). $148,763 in 2007 for redesigning media computation for a broader, more diverse student audience (DUE-0633090).

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