Preparing Creative Scientists at Swarthmore

Program Overview

The guiding principles of Swarthmore's institutional mission combine academic excellence and a commitment to advancing the common good. Faculty members in our Natural Sciences and Engineering (NSE) division are committed to the highest standards of achievement for our students, and to expanding our success in preparing scientific leaders to include students from traditionally underrepresented groups, low-income backgrounds, and first-generation college students. Programs that aim to help entering students adapt to Swarthmore's intensely academic environment include the Summer Scholars Program and a network of academic peer-mentoring programs across the NSE division. The Summer Scholars Program provides an intensive five-week academic immersion experience for students from challenging backgrounds who aspire to major in STEM disciplines. Academic peer mentors facilitate study workshops to support students in introductory courses by promoting active, collaborative learning and helping students to build skills and confidence in their abilities to solve scientific problems.

An emphasis on scientific inquiry pervades the curriculum, with laboratories in nearly all science courses, and Honors seminars in which students hone their critical abilities and develop deep expertise in the research literature. A highlight of our introductory science curriculum are two introductory physics courses for life sciences students, which were developed with HHMI grant support and have been widely disseminated as a model for interdisciplinary science pedagogy. The flourishing research community on our campus offers many opportunities for students to engage in independent research projects with faculty mentors during both summers and academic terms.

The Science for Kids (SFK) program offers engaging summer science workshops for children from the Chester Children's Chorus. Consistent with Swarthmore's longstanding commitment to advancing the common good, many NSE faculty, instructors, and students value the opportunity to participate as SFK teachers and counselors, engaging with these talented and energetic children as they learn foundational math and science skills.

Most of these programs have been developed and launched as a direct result of over two decades of funding from HHMI. This has included consistent support for summer research fellowships, crucial seed funding for academic peer mentoring programs, and essential support for the development and implementation of curricular initiatives and Science for Kids. HHMI funds have advanced the career aspirations of hundreds of students who have participated directly in these programs, and have transformed Swarthmore's NSE division in important ways. In addition to today's flourishing summer research program, NSE faculty are increasingly engaged in active learning practices, interdisciplinary science pedagogy, and efforts to help students transition successfully to the demands of Swarthmore science courses. These cultural shifts have transformed our strategies and generated renewed enthusiasm for preparing future generations of Swarthmore students to become leaders in a more diverse scientific community.

Cross-Cutting Themes

Increasing Persistence of All Students in STEM

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As Swarthmore has expanded its commitment to provide opportunities for students with exceptional promise from diverse backgrounds, our entering students bring a wide range of skills and prior experience to their introductory science and math courses. Faculty in the NSE division are committed to increasing the number of students who succeed as NSE majors, to include even those who enter the college without strong high school backgrounds in math and science. To help students adapt to the rigors of college-level science and math courses, a network of peer mentoring programs across the NSE division facilitate evening study workshops to support students in introductory courses. First-year students participate in the workshops in order to prepare for quizzes and build confidence in their problem-solving abilities. Four years later, increasing numbers of those from underrepresented groups are graduating with majors or minors in STEM fields. In addition, the Swarthmore Summer Scholars Program provides a five-week academic immersion experience for entering students from disadvantaged backgrounds or groups underrepresented in STEM disciplines.

Science for Kids (SFK) is a summer science education program organized by Swarthmore College faculty and instructors for children from the Chester Children's Chorus. About sixty chorus children in fifth through ninth grades participate in science workshops in our Science Center for one hour every day during their five-week summer camp. Inquiry-based workshop activities target the development of science practices such as making observations and working with evidence. Many undergraduate researchers assist in the SFK workshops as counselors during their lunch hour. Evaluation studies point to changes in workshop participants' capacities compared to matched controls. Evaluation of the counselors' involvement indicates that it is particularly beneficial for students who have less-developed interests in their majors. Swarthmore College incorporated documentation of Science for Kids into its successful application for 2015 Community Engagement Classification from The Carnegie Foundation.

Developing Inquiry Skills

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Science education at Swarthmore emphasizes the process of scientific investigation, with laboratories in nearly all science courses and many opportunities for students to engage in research collaborations with faculty mentors. Faculty in the NSE division partner with students in pursuing their research aims. Resources for student research have expanded continuously in the past two decades, driven by sustained college investments in science facilities and equipment, and generous funding for summer research fellowships from HHMI, faculty grants, and Swarthmore's strong endowment.

Swarthmore's Honors Program challenges students to hone their inquiry skills in small seminars that emphasize critical discussion of the research literature. In addition, many courses at all levels of the curriculum include in-depth empirical research experiences and inquiry-based activities that develop skills and encourage learning through planned action.

Fostering Interdisciplinary or Integrative Learning

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As the understanding of the physical mechanisms of biology increases, and as physics-based technology permeates both biological research and clinical medicine, it is increasingly important for life scientists and physicians to acquire a strong understanding of fundamental physics principles, as well as a high level of problem-solving and mathematical skills. Swarthmore physics professor Catherine Crouch is a leader in the physics education research community's efforts to reform introductory physics courses for life science students to meet these goals. Reformers have adopted the designation "introductory physics for life sciences," or IPLS, for such reformed courses. With support from HHMI, Crouch has developed and implemented a full year IPLS curriculum for Swarthmore life science students. The IPLS curriculum is designed to emphasize the topics that are most important for these students, and to develop the skills needed to apply physics to life science problems. It is taught with research-based pedagogy in both the class and the laboratory.

More broadly across the division of Natural Sciences and Engineering, a growing community of faculty and instructors participate in activities and conversations on issues related to science pedagogy. Many of these workshops, focus groups, and seminars are supported by the college's HHMI grant.

Pathways to Institutional Change

Institutional change at Swarthmore College is a bottom-up process. Most initiatives to improve and develop new science education programs began with informal conversations among faculty members with a shared commitment to some vision, be it improved student research experiences, a more integrated science curriculum, or improved persistence of students who aspire to become scientists or engineers. The small size of Swarthmore facilitates relationships among faculty from different departments to develop and support their visions. Sustained funding from HHMI for over two decades has enabled these dedicated faculty to pilot and develop many initiatives, including those highlighted on this site. Equally important have been college leaders who are engaged with the curriculum and who have offered encouragement to faculty innovators. New initiatives have become institutionalized over time, as evidence of their impacts have persuaded faculty colleagues to participate and college leaders to provide sustained funding and resources.

For example, in May 2013 a student protest broke out just before graduation that led to an uptick in organized conversations about inclusive community on campus. Students identified a lack of attention to the needs of first-year students from non-traditional backgrounds as a key concern. The deeply held convictions and compelling presentation by student protesters of their lived experience prompted several small groups of faculty members to initiate curricular innovations that would articulate and address unmet needs. At the time, the biology department was working under an HHMI grant to review and revise its two-course Introductory biology sequence to incorporate more active teaching techniques and integrative learning opportunities. The effort was well underway, but a departmental retreat that had been scheduled for May 2014 offered an opportunity to shift the curricular conversation toward fostering an environment where students from all backgrounds would thrive as biology majors. From this retreat, a plan emerged for Swarthmore's Biology Scholars Program, a course in which the biology department's prior commitments to active, integrative, inclusive teaching are expanded in a format that offers more intensive support. At the same moment, a separate group of faculty initiated the Swarthmore Summer Scholars program, whose curricular focus is also on building scholarly community and a reserve of experience that is foundational for success in natural science courses. Catalyzed by powerful student narratives, these programs, together with a preexisting Math Scholars Program, aim to build bridges among and within natural science departments and to serve the students in the full scope of work undertaken at a liberal arts college.

Funding Acknowledgment

The activities described here have been supported principally by a series of grants to Swarthmore College from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute's Undergraduate and Graduate Science Education Program. In addition, the summer research program has received generous funding from Swarthmore's alumni donors, who have committed more than $2.2 million in endowed funds and annual support for student research. Grants from the American Chemical Society, the Merck Institute for Science Education, NASA, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Research Corporation for Science Advancement also support student-faculty research collaborations. The college has dedicated significant institutional funds to curriculum development and to programs that support the persistence of students in STEM fields. Additional funders of these programs include the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the NIH, and the NSF. A grant from the NIH Biomedical Research Administration Development program supported data coding for assessment projects.

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