Turning Liberal Arts Students onto Science
Faculty of Keck Graduate Institute have teamed up with instructors from The Claremont Colleges' Joint Science Department to offer a series of introductory science courses designed to spark the interest of liberal studies majors in the sciences.
The program, which started in January and will extend over five semesters, was funded by a $250,000 grant from the Fletcher Jones Foundation, which is dedicated to supporting private colleges and universities, particularly in California.
Steven Casper, PhD, Henry E. Riggs Professor of Management and director of KGI's Master of Bioscience (MBS) program, teamed with Joint Science Department Professor Newt Copp as co-principal investigators on the grant.
"We want students to be more informed about science issues," Casper said. "If they have a better understanding of key science issues, then when they consider public policy issues involving science like stem cells or oil spills, they can be more involved citizens."
The classes combine traditional science lectures and labs with case-based teaching, which is a hallmark of the KGI curriculum.
"We use professional school teaching methods to create new tools by which students can learn about science and become engaged," Casper said.
For instance, instead of studying just chemistry, students learn how chemistry has been commercialized into society and its uses and applications by companies and nonprofits. Students spend the final month of class doing a team-based project designed with the help of KGI students.
"We give them a hardcore science article out of a journal like Science or Nature and ask them to understand the science in the article and come up with commercial plan," Casper said. At the end, students give a team-based presentation to the class and write a 20- to 25-page report.
Casper and Emily Wiley, an associate professor in the Joint Science Department, co-taught a genetic engineering course developed as part of the project last semester.
"The biggest difference between teaching a standard course and these courses is the content was all presented in the context of their final project," Wiley said.
Her job was to make sure students knew the correct scientific language and had an understanding of basic molecules, cellular biology, biochemistry and genetics concepts so they could read primary experimental papers written by scientists published in science journals and make sense of them.
"It was more applied than I would typically teach in an upper-division genetic engineering course," Wiley said.
Her students were pushed far outside their comfort zone, Wiley said. Many had never looked at a primary experimental paper with graphs and been asked to interpret the data.
The results were impressive.
"I couldn't believe the students who knew nothing about science at the beginning of the course were able to synthesize and discuss scientific issues using the right syntax and context," Wiley said. "I never would have expected they could do that by the end."
While only a couple of her students may consider switching to a science major, Wiley said she believes most of them are now more open to thinking about science and more inclined to read a scientific article in the newspaper or magazine and try to make sense of it.
C. Diggory Rycroft, a Claremont McKenna College student, said, "The interesting thing is that, by the end of it, I became interested in science for science's sake, which is something that no previous science class has been able to offer me. I may have been initially intrigued by the commercial aspect, but I ended up totally enthralled by the biological mechanisms we studied in their own right."
By Elaine Regus