Developing Inquiry Skills

We believe that today's science education must be transformed to focus on interactive, student-centered, and inquiry-driven approaches. Our 2014 strategic plan for the sciences, Vision for the Future 2015 (Summer Strategic Planning Committee, 2014), identifies developing student knowledge and skills through these transformational practices as a central strategic direction. We are guided by the principle that best-practices pedagogies, particularly inquiry-based approaches, will result in optimal learning and future success for our students. We work to develop student mastery of the key concepts and competencies of our disciplines through rigorous coursework and research opportunities that connect the work of the students with cutting-edge faculty scholarship.

The sciences at Smith have engaged in systematic efforts to foster student knowledge and skills through our long-standing investments in apprentice-based research opportunities, including our Summer Research Fellowships program as well as other early and advanced research experiences. These projects, occurring in faculty research labs, the Science Center's five multidisciplinary research centers (Scordilis & Litwin, 2005) and our field research sites, demand the applied and integrative learning that deepens student engagement and fosters success. As a measure of our research strengths, Smith's chapter of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society, was one of the top 15 electing chapters for number of new initiates in 2014–2015. More recently, we have increased efforts to blur the distinction between our research labs and classroom spaces to create Course-Based Research Experiences (CBREs) that make room in our curriculum for authentic, open-ended exploration driven by student agency and curiosity.

Summer Research Fellowship

Established in 1967, Smith's Summer Research Fellowship (SURF) celebrates almost fifty years of providing women scientists the opportunity for an immersive experience (typically 30–40 hours per week for 8–10 weeks of summer) to conduct independent research under the mentorship of our science faculty and staff. The program itself is funded by a patchwork of grant, college, and endowment sources, with HHMI providing consistent funding for quite some time. As part of college-wide strategic planning in which science faculty advocated for the success of SURF programming, the college also recently announced the addition of over twenty SURF stipends as well as a new summer research supply fund to our operating budget, beginning in summer of 2017.

Since its start, SURF has been a cornerstone of Smith's science education. In 2014, for example, 150 students participated in SURF, supervised by sixty-one faculty mentor-advisers drawn from the Clark Science Center and connected to its eighteen science, mathematics, and engineering departments and programs and associated centers and units. Over the years, SURF students have worked on some of the biggest research challenges of our times, including eradicating human disease, reexamining human life and the earth around us at the nano-scale, documenting climate change and its impact on the living world, testing and improving sustainable energy technologies, and developing materials and testing methods not just for Earth but also for use in space. These research projects take place not just on the Smith campus, but in a wide variety of research settings in the wider world: locally (study of local forests, wild life, and water courses at the Ada and Archibald MacLeish Field Station in West Whately, MA and development of new systematics beds in the Botanic Garden); nationally (projects on the Atlantic, Pacific, and Great Lakes shores with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists); and internationally (examination of coral reefs in Belize and energy research in Spain).

SURF Program Outcomes

As described by Lamb et al. (2015), a series of internal and external assessment reports on SURF program outcomes at Smith found strong student benefits and outcomes across a variety of assessments. Below, we detail those findings.

References (undergraduate co-authors are in bold)

  • Brodigan, D. (2012, December). Smith College science pipeline programs. Unpublished manuscript.
  • Hakim, T., Horton, N., Rowen, C., & Ly, M. (2012, April). Does participation in the Smith Summer Research Fellows (SURF) Program increase odds of attaining an advanced degree? Poster presentation at Celebrating Collaborations, Smith College, Northampton, MA. Hakim et al. 2012 pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 355kB Oct19 15)
  • Lamb, M., Aloisio, K., Ly, M., Miller, M., & DiBartolo, P.M. (2015, June). Access and scaffolding student learning in a growing summer undergraduate research program. Poster presentation at the Council for Undergraduate Research meeting, Norman, OK. Lamb et al. pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 144kB Oct19 15)
  • Lopatto, D., & Trosset, C. (2008). Report on the Smith College alumnae survey. Unpublished manuscript.
  • Pedersen-Gallegos, L. (2007). Qualitative evaluation of the Summer Research Program at Smith College. Unpublished manuscript.
  • Scordilis, S.P. and T.S. Litwin, 2005. Integrating technology, science and undergraduate education at Smith College: The creation of student-faculty research centers. CUR Quarterly, 25: 138-140.
  • Summer Strategic Planning Committee (2014, November). Vision for the Future, 2015: Strategic Planning. Smith College: Author. Vision for the Future pdf (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 144kB Oct20 15)

Self-reported learning gains

For the past few years, we have administered the SURE III survey to the students who participate in our SURF program. These data provide evidence of self-reported learning gains on a variety of outcomes, including self-confidence, understanding the research process, ability to integrate theory and practice, tolerance for obstacles in research, learning to work independently, and readiness for more demanding research (as noted in our 2014 assessment data). These findings echo an earlier qualitative analysis of the self-reported learning gains reported in fifty-nine in-depth interviews with students who participated in SURF between 1967 and 2006 (Pederson-Gallagos, 2007). Alumnae identified five benefits to their SURF participation: learning (e.g., critical thinking, deepening of scientific mastery); research skills (e.g., lab techniques, problem-solving skills); self-confidence (e.g., enhanced perseverance, raising self-expectations); good mentoring (e.g., self-identification as scientist; enhanced mentorship to others); and clarification of, and increase in, career ambitions and achievements. Virtually all of the interviewees said that, if they had the chance to do it all again, they would.

Percentile-GPA rank gains controlling for SAT scores

Brodigan (2012) found that SURF participation at Smith was associated with a statistically significant gain of 7 percentile-GPA rank points relative to expectations of predicted GPA based on combined math and verbal SAT scores for students entering in the years 2007 to 2010.

Scholarly output

Each year, SURF participants communicate a summary of their research projects through our annual Women in Science publication. Their SURF experiences often lead to additional research opportunities, with many students reporting that their SURF research contributes to an honors thesis or special studies project afterward. Students also frequently make a distinct contribution to a collaborative research project with a faculty member and often a joint conference presentation and/or publication is prepared. At least one undergraduate student is a coauthor on a third of all science faculty members' peer-reviewed scholarship (data provided, Smith College Institutional Research, 2014).

Graduate school and career trajectories

SURF students were two times more likely to complete an advanced degree following graduation from Smith in comparison to non-SURF students (Hakim, Horton, Rowen, & Ly, 2012), a difference that persists even when controlling for incoming student characteristics. A quantitative analysis by Lopatto and Trosset (2008) of Smith alumnae at graduation as well as five and ten years out found that our former summer research students were more likely to report involvement with science jobs at each time period. Summer research alumnae in this survey also reported more PhDs, MD/PhDs, and science master's degrees than a comparison group of science students who did not engage in summer research.

Today's Challenges

Over the almost fifty years of existence, our SURF program has grown and changed. The success of this program has also introduced some critical programming challenges (for an overview, see Lamb et al., 2015) to which we have turned our attention recently. We continue to work on addressing these concerns as we seek to improve SURF access and programming.

Student demand

As we have identified research as a core practice in science education at Smith, demand for SURF opportunities has broadened. The size of our program has been both an aim and a challenge for us, with the number of SURF participants increasing by approximately 50% in the last decade (Lamb et al., 2015), creating concerns about funding and available faculty mentorship. There is a growing sense that we may have approached the limits of faculty capacity to supervise students in the summer at the same time that student demand for the program has outstripped available funding by 10 to 20% (Lamb et al., 2015). This challenge was part of the impetus for our investment in course-based research experiences in the sciences (see section below).

Access to SURF

Given Smith's commitment to access and diversity at the college, we have been particularly attuned to whether our SURF program is serving a broad range of our students. We do see increasing numbers of first-generation and underrepresented minority students participating in SURF (cf. Lamb et al., 2015) but have questions about whether our program is well-suited to students across a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, given our current stipend payment as well as housing costs to SURF students. Related to these concerns, we recently voted a modest increase in SURF stipends for our students, beginning in summer of 2016.

Building additional programming to foster student gains

Despite the positive gains of our SURF students, we have recently wondered whether we are maximizing the amount of learning we provide our students, especially as the diversity of the students who participate is broadening in every domain (e.g., class year, ethnicity, generational status). As a result, we piloted a new program, Talking About Science Series (TASS), in the summer of 2015 that aimed to offer modules that complemented and reinforced the individual mentorship that students received while fostering their agency and scientific identity. Modules of the TASS included reflection about scientific work; presentations; writing personal statements and CVs; and planning next steps toward graduate school and practicing science as a professional. We plan to expand the program in future years, based on formative feedback.

Course-Based Research Experiences

Smith's success in apprentice-based research experiences in the sciences through independent studies, honors theses, and summer fellowships has been associated with burgeoning student interest in these kinds of opportunities. More students than ever are seeking out opportunities for authentic scientific exploration. In addition, many students are clamoring for research experiences early during their time in college. As the number of our science majors has increased in recent years (with about 45% of current Smith students declaring at least one), faculty have been unable to keep up with growing student demand.

This is a shared concern, one heightened by worries that intrepid students who successfully secure these opportunities might well be those with strong academic preparation and significant social capital related to navigating college success coming into Smith. In response, the sciences at Smith have made an effort to broaden the number of research opportunities available to our students, particularly in the first two years, through new interdisciplinary course-based research experience (CBRE) offerings generously supported by HHMI. The purpose of these courses was to transform introductory science courses to student- and idea-centered approaches that emphasize deep learning, engage students with big interdisciplinary question, rely on collaborative problem-solving, and help students to participate in advancing scientific knowledge.

These courses have engaged our students with significant research challenges, including questions related to the modelling and treatment of human disease, oscillations of biological clocks, and the impact of mercury contamination in local ecosystems, among others. One, Frontiers in Biomathematics, provides a broad sampling of biomathematical questions that are the focus of research collaborations between pairs of faculty engaged in cross-disciplinary research ranging from ecological systems to protein folding. Environmental Biogeochemical Cycling, another CBRE offering, examines the biology, chemistry, and geology of the Avery Brook watershed, the largest tributary to a reservoir that provides drinking water to the city of Northampton. Finally, From Environment to Embryo examines the effects of environmental contaminants on embryonic zebrafish development to examine mechanistic insights underlying teratogenesis. Together, these innovative courses have helped create an array of interdisciplinary relationships and research projects that have fostered student engagement with science.

CBRE Program Outcomes

We are in the midst of carefully assessing the impacts of these course revisions on our students, faculty, and institution, and we already have good evidence of some of their benefits.

References (undergraduate co-authors are in bold)

  • DiBartolo, P.M. & Shea, K. (2015, November). Transforming curriculum to implement course-based research experiences across the sciences. Facilitated discussion session at the Association of American Colleges and Universities/Project Kaleidoscope meeting, "Crossing Boundaries: Transforming STEM Education," Seattle, WA. 1447632774 (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 383kB Nov15 15)
  • Johnson, K., Moriarity, C., Tania, N., Ortman, A., DiPietrantonio, K., Edens, B., Eisenman, J., Ok, D., Krikorian, S., Barragan, J., Gole, C., & Barresi, M.J.F. (2014). Kif11 dependent cell cycle progression in radial glial cells is required for proper neurogenesis in the zebrafish neural tube. Developmental Biology, 387, 73-92.
  • McGeough, K., & Shea, K.M. (2015, June). Extraction and functionalization of Neurolenin A and B. Poster presentation at the National Organic Symposium, College Park, MD. McGeough & Shea pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 2.7MB Oct19 15)
  • Merritt, R.B. with J. Morgan, T. Jones, M. Anderson, and R. Newton, April 30, 2014. A fisheye look at mercury in Grand River cats and drum. The North Missourian.
  • Merritt, R.B. and R. Newton (2014, October). Biogeochemical cycling and interdisciplinary research for first-year students. Poster presentation at the Council for Undergraduate Research meeting, Quebec City, Canada.
  • Scordilis, S.P. and T.S. Litwin, 2005. Integrating technology, science and undergraduate education at Smith College: The creation of student-faculty research centers. CUR Quarterly, 25: 138–140.
  • Shea, K.M. (2015, June). An Organic II course-based research experience: Synthesis of neurolenin analogs. Poster presentation at the National Organic Symposium, College Park, MD. Shea pdf (Acrobat (PDF) 10.7MB Oct19 15)
  • Staub, N.L., Blumer, L.S., Beck, C.W., Delesalle, V.A., Griffin, G.D., Merritt, R.B., Hennington, B.S., Grillo, W.H., Hollowell, G.P., White, S.L., & Mader, C.M. (in press). Diverse CREs for diverse students from diverse institutions. CUR Quarterly.
  • Summer Strategic Planning Committee (2014, November). Vision for the Future, 2015: Strategic Planning. Smith College: Author. Vision for the Future pdf (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 144kB Oct20 15)

Student impact and self-reported learning gains

Thus far, approximately 100 first-year and sophomore students over the last two years have taken these classes, and they reflect the diversity of Smith. With 23 percent of students receiving federal Pell Grants, Smith is consistently recognized as a national leader among private colleges in creating access for low-income and first-generation students and graduating Hispanic students at the same rate as white students, according to the advocacy group Education Trust.

Initial Classroom Undergraduate Research Experience (CURE) survey data from students in these first-year classes reveal substantial post-course learning gains on a variety of measures of scientific efficacy. Almost all students who take these classes strongly agree that they are a good way to learn about the process of scientific research, and gains reported by students were remarkably high in the areas of data collection/analysis as well as presenting results (written and oral). These courses receive very positive evaluations from the students as well.

Dissemination and institutional impacts

Smith's HHMI courses have been at the center of many conversations at the college, including science-wide Sigma Xi talks, curricular working groups, and Sherrerd Center for Teaching and Learning lunches, thereby helping to propel other course-based research initiatives. The impact of our CBREs has reached beyond these few courses to extend into our science curriculum and even beyond Smith.

Additional CBREs

Faculty beyond the HHMI-funded courses have begun to invest effort in integrating CBREs into new or existing classes. Smith has or will be adding CBREs to six courses spread across the sciences (in chemistry, computer science, geosciences, and mathematics and statistics). One particularly compelling example is the transformation of an Organic Chemistry II laboratory to infuse it with a course-based research experience that focused on having students work to develop new molecules that might hold promise for the treatment of a neglected tropical disease, lymphatic filariasis.

Students randomly assigned to this section endorsed significantly greater self-reported understanding of a number of chemistry-related concepts (e.g., structure and reactivity of various chemical compounds) and competencies (e.g., predicting reaction outcomes, learning laboratory techniques, understanding how scientists think) relative to students in traditional lab sections.

Discipline-based education dissemination and research

Faculty members at Smith College are beginning to share their expertise about CBREs outside of Smith, at venues such as the Council on Undergraduate Research meeting (Merritt & Newton, 2014), at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and at the PKAL meeting at AAC&U (DiBartolo & Shea, 2015).

In addition, we are in the process of creating several online modules that articulate the intellectual context for an active problem in biomathematics and introduce users to tools that help understand or resolve the problem. These modules will be exportable and self-contained units highlighting the intersection of biology, statistics, and mathematics. The modules are being developed through the HHMI-sponsored course on bio-mathematics and will be made available on the web.

Placing science in the public eye

Students who worked on bioaccumulation of mercury in fish shared their research findings, informing the Missouri Department of Conservation in April 2014 about mercury levels in three freshwater fish species from northwest Missouri, which generated a subsequent newspaper article about these findings in The North Missourian published on April 30, 2014.

Meaningful scholarly outputs for faculty and students

The collaborative scholarship between faculty and students fostered by our CBREs has begun to yield demonstrable scholarly outputs, including scientific and discipline-based education research publications and presentations. These courses have afforded our students the opportunity to share their work as scientists at the end of their first year of college to a professional audience.

Scientific presentations

Our CBRE student-researchers have made dozens of on-campus presentations through our campus-wide Celebrating Collaborations event, newly instituted biannual science poster session, and Sigma Xi lunch bag series. A testament to the quality of this work is that our students and faculty have also shared their collaborative work beyond campus at scientific meetings with over a dozen peer-reviewed poster presentations, including at the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry North Atlantic Regional Chapter meeting, the Northeastern section of the American Geological Society meeting, and even at the International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant in Korea. One of our students, Lydia Rose Kesich, won Best Undergraduate Platform Presentation at the 2015 SETAC NAC meeting. Some of these student projects within HHMI-CBRE courses have lead to additional research opportunities, resulting in other scientific outputs (Johnson et al., 2014).

Grant funding

Promising pilot data on outcomes associated with the CBRE in the Organic Chemistry II laboratory section resulted in Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation funding for similar efforts in four additional lab sections over a two-year period.

We look forward to investing effort in considering how best to sustain and disseminate our work. There is accruing evidence that the innovative programming of our CBREs is having a reverberating influence on broader discussions about our science curriculum and pedagogy at Smith. We look forward to contemplating how best to infuse these models into our curriculum broadly and sustainably.