Southwestern

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Inquiry Initiative

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    Chemistry professor Maha Zewail-Foote and Alexis Kropf, program coordinator for the new HHMI-Southwestern Inquiry Initiative, host an event to help introduce students to the new program. (Photo by Lance Holt)

Program will add more hands-on learning in science classes

Last May, Southwestern received a $1.3 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) that is part of a nationwide $50 million science education initiative.

This year, Southwestern students are starting to learn what this new initiative will mean for them. In January, Southwestern officially launched the HHMI-Southwestern Inquiry Initiative. 

Over the next four years, this initiative will help Southwestern overhaul its science curriculum to make it more engaging and enriching for students through a technique known as inquiry-based learning, or student-centered learning.

Chemistry professors Emily Niemeyer and Maha Zewail-Foote are co-directors of the new program, and Alexis Kropf, a 2012 Southwestern graduate, has been hired to serve as program coordinator.

Initially, Niemeyer said, students will see only minimal changes in curriculum and classroom experiences. Right now, most of the grant funds are being focused on faculty development.

“Until we get faculty up to speed, not much curricular change can happen, so we have a number of speakers who are coming to talk with the science and math faculty this year,” Niemeyer said. “We host monthly faculty lunches where we all meet and talk about different things that are going on in the classroom.” Niemeyer said faculty members will also be able to attend a 2 ½-day workshop in May that will give them the intense training they need to restructure their classrooms and laboratories.

“The grant has empowered me to try some new teaching techniques that I haven’t really thought about doing before,” Niemeyer said. “As I’m learning more about student-centered learning, I’m starting to bring more and more of these strategies into my class every semester. It’s given me the opportunity to refocus on my teaching and try some techniques that are at the forefront of where science education is going.”

Niemeyer said the grant also is very heavily focused on what’s going to happen in the laboratory. “We have a specific focus on organic chemistry,” she said. “That tends to be a place where the student success rate is not as high.”

Student-centered changes will appear this summer with the implementation of SCOPE, a student-faculty collaborative research program. This eight-week initiative seeks to foster research-based learning and promote students’ success after graduation. Through the HHMI grant and other funding resources, students will be able to work with professors in all the programs within the Division of Natural Sciences – biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics, computer science, kinesiology and animal behavior. Students will be matched with a faculty mentor based on their application.

“I’m going to apply, and I’m really hoping that I can get in,” said junior animal behavior major Nicoletta Memos. “It’s competitive, but it’s a really great experience to get to work with a professor and do your own research.”

The grant will cover student housing as well as a stipend. The first summer, the SCOPE program hopes to support about 30 students. Over the course of the four-year grant, this number will increase to about 40 student participants. Although a few projects are reserved for upper-level students, first-year students are strongly encouraged to apply.

“HHMI is very interested in having students get involved in research following their first year,” Niemeyer said. “Data shows that it correlates with students persisting in the sciences.”

A new class will be available in the fall for students who participated in SCOPE and for those who are interested in scientific research. This course will be offered every semester and is designed to help further prepare students and give them a better understanding of the scientific process. Faculty members hope to foster conversation about research and career opportunities.

Students will also have the opportunity to engage with peer mentors. These mentors will be present in natural science classes to serve as facilitators for active learning and to assist students with course material. Mentors will develop lesson plans and serve as social mentors in addition to their tutoring duties.

Ultimately, Kropf said, the initiative is designed to foster a desire in students to remain in the sciences, no matter their background, by providing an engaging and relevant learning environment.

“As we face a shortage of scientists, a shortage of doctors and a shortage of primary care physicians, there’s obviously a need to get more people in the science ‘pipeline’,” she said. “We want to promote community in the sciences and get people more jazzed for the idea of becoming a scientist.”

As part of the new initiative, Kropf also hopes to hold a bi-monthly “Science Friday Tea Time” in her office (FJS350), which also serves as headquarters for the new program.

“We want people to feel comfortable coming here and asking questions,” Kropf said.

−      Devin Corbett