Initial Publication Date: April 1, 2016

Developing Inquiry Skills

Summer Research

A flourishing summer research program provides fellowships for students to conduct full-time research for ten weeks with a Swarthmore faculty mentor. Resources for student research have expanded continuously in the past two decades, driven by funding from HHMI, faculty grants, and donors who have pledged more than $2 million in new endowed funds to support high impact summer learning experiences. As a result, increasing numbers of Swarthmore students participate in summer research projects. Among NSE majors who graduated between 2003 and 2012, 42% received funding from the college to conduct independent research for at least one summer.

Since 2005, five HHMI fellowships each summer have been awarded to first- or second-year students from groups that are underrepresented in their area of science, to conduct research with a Swarthmore faculty mentor. Over 80% of these students have graduated as NSE majors. In addition, five HHMI fellowships each summer are awarded competitively to students who develop a research proposal with an investigator at a research university. These fellowships are especially important for students who are eager to learn about graduate programs in university departments.

Most students who participate in Swarthmore's summer research program go on to obtain advanced degrees in science, medicine, or engineering. For example, among those who were awarded summer fellowships and graduated as NSE majors between 2003 and 2007, 28% have earned a PhD in a STEM discipline, 2% earned MD/PhDs, 9% obtained an MD, and 19% have earned a master's degree.

A Community of Researchers

The summer science community is enriched with an active program of seminars, ice cream socials, workshops on preparing scientific posters, lunchtime presentations by deans and Career Services counselors about job-hunting and fellowships, and a popular alumni panel and barbecue.

The college has an active Sigma Xi chapter, a national organization that promotes scientific research. It sponsors an annual research symposium in September, where over eighty science students present posters on their summer research projects. All students who publish or present their research at a conference are encouraged to join our Sigma Xi chapter. Members enjoy several social dinners each year with guest scientists who present public lectures. In addition, dozens of students each year are awarded Sigma Xi travel grants to present their work at national or local scientific meetings.

The Honors Program

Swarthmore's Honors Program offers a challenging program of independent learning for juniors and seniors, featuring small Honors seminars in a student's major and minor field and an independent research project. Honors seminars emphasize close reading and critical discussion of the research literature. Students in the Honors Program defend their mastery of the subjects of their Honors seminars as well as their Honors research thesis to external examiners at the end of the senior year.

Courses that Promote Inquiry Skills


  • Both semesters of introductory biology include multi-week laboratory projects where students generate and test hypotheses with guidance from faculty and instructors. The manuscript-formatted laboratory reports that students write about these projects reflect authentic lessons about the nature of experimentation, especially the critical role of controls in data analysis. See "An Inquiry-Infused Introductory Biology Laboratory That Integrates Mendel's Pea Phenotypes with Molecular Mechanisms" [pdf]
  • Intermediate-level courses in biology have both lecture and weekly laboratory sessions. In many of these courses, students read primarily literature early in the term to acquaint them with process and methodology. By the end of the term, many courses have independent laboratory projects as culminating activities.
  • Advanced courses in biology are double-credit Honors seminars, which involve intensive reading and critical discussions of the primary literature, as well as semester-long student-designed laboratory projects. In many cases, these projects serve as pilot studies for subsequent independent research projects.

Chemistry and Biochemistry

  • Juniors take Integrated Experimental Chemistry, an experimental course that emphasizes inquiry skills. The course is a mixture of inorganic, analytical and physical chemistry, where students figure out what questions they want to ask, come up with hypotheses and design experiments.
  • Students conducting a senior thesis in chemistry work closely with a mentor and are encouraged to pose their own questions. Each student has a three-person faculty committee that provides feedback on their "prospectus." Students also defend their thesis in front of their committee in the spring.

Computer Science

  • In introductory courses, students develop and test hypotheses regarding algorithmic performance. Through lab exercises, students investigate, implement, and test performance trade-offs of competing algorithmic approaches.
  • Intermediate courses provide opportunities for more open-ended inquiries. Lab projects feature greater flexibility to hypothesize, implement, and evaluate solutions. Furthermore, students must develop skills to diagnose and fix programming bugs, as well as identify, measure, and correct performance bottlenecks.
  • Senior majors in the capstone course improve their inquiry skills by formulating and evaluating a hypothesis through a multiple week research project. Students connect their work to prior research via a review of related literature, and disseminate results through written and oral presentations.

Mathematics and Statistics

  • In the introductory course in Statistical Methods, students work in small groups to formulate a research question, collect and analyze relevant data, and present their results at a poster session.
  • The advanced course in Applied Statistics emphasizes interactive problem-solving using real data sets. In addition, students learn to write about the results of their statistical analyses in an informed and understandable manner.
  • The core courses in Analysis and Modern Algebra are both writing-intensive courses, with required problem sessions in which students work to develop their skills at writing mathematical proofs.
  • All senior mathematics majors enroll in Senior Conference, a supervised research experience that provides an opportunity to delve more deeply into a particular topic agreed on by the student and the instructor.

Physics and Astronomy

  • In a year-long advanced laboratory course, senior physics majors work in small teams with a faculty member to conduct four three-week laboratory projects in areas such as plasma physics, low temperature physics, nuclear physics, liquid crystals, optical pumping, optical tweezers, nuclear magnetic resonance, ultrafast lasers, and Raman spectroscopy. Each team works to gather preliminary data, decide on a project, begin to draft a report, take a final data set, perform some analysis, and prepare a final written report.


  • In virtually all courses in psychology, students develop skills for critiquing scientific literature and for developing research questions and hypotheses. In many courses, they develop research proposals.
  • All psychology majors take Research Design & Analysis, which teaches research methods in psychology. Students develop research questions/hypotheses they would like to examine, design a study, run the project, analyze data, and present their findings in (group) posters and (individual) journal article format papers.
  • Senior thesis projects and Research & Practica courses in many areas of psychology offer in-depth empirical research experiences.