Initial Publication Date: April 1, 2016

Pathways to Institutional Change

Our pathways to institutional change were shaped and compellingly informed by both our institutional successes and challenges. One story of institutional change is embedded in Smith's Inquiry-Based pages, related to the success and growth of our Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Program (SURF). Careful evaluation of this program indicated that our students significantly benefited from this intensive research experience, and faculty found that the SURF program helped to propel their collaborations with student researchers to achieve high-quality research. Given SURF's success, the size of the program grew and grew, eventually resulting in resource strain where we were having trouble accommodating student demand. Research labs during the academic year were similarly full to capacity because they were providing the same kinds of meaningful research collaborations that yielded significant scholarship for our students and faculty.

We reached a point where there was little capacity to grow either of these sets of opportunities for student research (due to the need for either additional science faculty or a significant infusion of money into our SURF budget). This was a critical concern given that faculty tended to share the view that these kinds of hands-on research opportunities provided invaluable opportunities for our students and were often the most rewarding kinds of teaching they did. Faculty in the sciences began to wonder whether we could make our classrooms more like our research labs. A number of them had already taught their advanced seminars as miniature lab groups, and we began to play with the idea that we could employ similar innovations throughout our curriculum, even at its earliest stages.

Despite some faculty interest in this model, many were skeptical about its likely success and sustainability. We realized that we needed some pilot data to inform and propel these discussions and proposed developing three new interdisciplinary course-based research experiences (CBREs) for first-year students with funding by HHMI. One of our biology faculty members proposed the development of a year-long, first-year, research-based course with a colleague in geology focused on field work, data collection and analysis. The geologist was not convinced that the model was sustainable and also worried that students might not be fully capable of undertaking meaningful scientific research in their first year of college. Nonetheless, he agreed to collaborate and together, the two faculty members spent hours in the classroom and in the lab teaching the students what they needed to know. Over the course of several weekends, student teams gathered their samples. Much to the amazement of our geoscientist, the students not only thrived, they excelled. During the spring semester, all of the students prepared posters and then presented them at a regional scientific meeting where unsuspecting geologists were shocked to learn that they were undergraduates. The faculty who have taught this and our other CBREs are now proponents of this model, and they are hard at work persuading other faculty in the sciences to integrate research experiences into courses, even at the introductory level.

This has been another key to institutional change: conversation and communication within and across various stakeholders at the college. Communicating with the broad audience of science faculty about recent course-based research experiences has helped to encourage expanding these opportunities for our students. Faculty buy-in has improved dramatically because of the interacting effects of gathering data about these course successes and disseminating these results by having students/faculty involved in the courses presenting and sharing their ideas/approaches. Sometimes those data have been hard data (e.g., showing CURE data or the number of students who presented at a regional/national conference due to CBRE work), but some of the data have been more qualitative (e.g., when first-year students in one of these courses talked articulately about their research hypotheses at a Sigma Xi lunch only a few months into the fall semester and faculty who attended said, "Wow, they don't sound like they are just in their first year here"). This shows the importance of communicating program efficacy through dissemination efforts on campus that emphasize both hard data as well as powerful anecdote to persuade stakeholders. This same momentum has fed into our division's, as well as the college's, strategic planning efforts, as faculty have shared their view with administration of the power of this approach to science teaching and learning.

This pathway is one that flowed from our values and institutional success. The SURF program was popular, yielded well-regarded outcomes, and reflected a broad view that hands-on opportunities for research provide a powerful and lasting impact on our students. When we reached a point where demand for meaningful student research opportunities outstripped our college's resources to provide them, we were motivated to focus on innovating our curriculum with CBREs. So this is a tale of innovation being driven by the success of one program and our inability to provide the resources to make it available as a guarantee for every student.

Another pathway to institutional change at Smith related to our recognition of an ongoing challenge within the sciences. Some years back, a few faculty voiced a gnawing worry related to a pattern they sensed within our gateway course sequence in the life sciences. They perceived that underrepresented minorities were over-represented in the intro biology and chemistry courses, but underrepresented in the majors. Faculty became increasingly concerned about an uneven support system within the curriculum. Asking questions about differential outcomes by groups, spurred by participation in an HHMI series of workshops, faculty worked with Institutional Research to examine course performance and major persistence data. Examining these disaggregated data turned a faculty observation into evidence that there was indeed a problem.

Smith's Achieving Excellence in Mathematics, Science, and Engineering programs (AEMES) were founded soon after to address this issue and support students from social groups historically underrepresented in STEM fields. At AEMES' start, benchmarks and metrics were established based on defined outcomes for gateway sequence performance. We also found that data around advanced research experiences revealed a gap between underrepresented minority and majority students. Using these data, programmatic adjustments were made in an attempt to address this issue by adding new research fellowships to complement the existing programs. Annually, these data are updated to monitor progress, and programmatic adjustments are made as needed.

Our AEMES programs were launched with grant and piecemeal funding. Started with generous support from HHMI and the McKinley Fund of Smith College (as well as the Dreyfus Foundation), this program has yielded improved outcomes for our students. By establishing the efficacy of the program with bridge funding, we could provide persuasive evidence of the program's success to the college's administration. The use of data to inform, sustain, and manage the program has ensured that we are effectively serving our students and has provided evidence of the impact of this work to the faculty, administration, and our funders. As a result, the college administration has recently agreed to roll the costs of the program into the college's core operating budget now that this initial funding is set to expire. This work has also fed into strategic planning processes and additional efforts on campus to ensure inclusive excellence for all of our students.

Together, these two pathways started in very different places, one building on our successes and the other from an observed shortcoming. Nonetheless, these paths have both led to lasting institutional change because of their use of data to inform conversations and decision-making across campus. By building on our strengths and addressing our weaknesses, we have been able to target efforts that have created sustained changes in our approach to educating Smith science students.

« Previous Page