Issue Date: February 7, 2011
Bringing Science To The Citizens
While their upperclassmen peers were still on winter break last month, the freshmen at New York’s Bard College sat in class for six hours per day learning about science. The students may have started out as grudging participants in this experimental program to teach the rudiments of science to all undergraduates, but their engagement was obvious as instructors in the various classrooms facilitated conversations on topics as diverse as experimental design, peer review, and invasive species. They are the first group to go through Citizen Science, Bard’s new graduation requirement, an ungraded intensive two-and-a-half-week workshop designed to introduce students to the scientific process.
The program was originally conceived by Bard President Leon Botstein in response to “decades of frustration” about the “complete inability of our colleges and universities to confront the problem of science illiteracy in our universities and our society in general.” Academic institutions have been “irresponsible” in allowing students who choose majors in humanities and other nonscience subject areas “to walk out of the university with a diploma but with a scientific literacy level that’s pre-Copernican,” he says. Botstein, himself not a scientist, leveraged his prerogative as Bard’s longtime president—he’s held the post since 1975—to decree the new graduation requirement.
But setting the requirement was only the beginning. Such a large undertaking required somebody willing to tackle organizing and running the program. The college tapped Brooke Jude, an assistant professor in the biology department, to be director. The program was approved by the Board of Trustees last April, and Jude had from then until January to build the program.
Citizen Science’s subject may be science writ large, but it is also grounded in specific content. For its inaugural run, Citizen Science focused on infectious disease as its unifying theme.
Jude’s goal is to make the students science-literate. “They all have the ability to read the science that’s in the mainstream media and make educated decisions about things in science. The more we can bring in real-world pieces, the better. That’s why infectious disease lends itself as a good topic.”
Another “natural” topic is energy and the environment, Botstein says, but the program will probably continue to focus on infectious disease for at least a few years to give the faculty a chance to work out any kinks.
The 25 Citizen Science faculty members have been drawn from around the country. Besides Jude, only one other Citizen Science faculty member, physicist Matthew Deady, is a member of the regular Bard faculty. The program’s faculty have expertise in a variety of fields, including biochemistry, microbiology, neuroscience, and even physical chemistry.
Diana Phillips, a professor at Kettering University, in Flint, Mich., is the lone chemist on the Citizen Science faculty. “This has been a real learning experience for me. I have no knowledge of microbiology,” she says. “I tell the students we’re in this together. We’re going to learn together how to tell if something’s good and critique it.”
Most of the professors can empathize with Phillips. Even the biologists, for the most part, are not microbiologists. For example, Kate Seip is a postdoctoral research fellow in neuroscience at Rockefeller University. Like many of her fellow teachers, Seip allowed the interests of the students to shape the class and guide discussion. She estimates that she used fewer than half of her original lesson plans.
Because the course is ungraded, the requirements are few. Most important, the students must participate. “They can’t just come to campus, sit in their room, and not go to class,” Jude says. But beyond that, what counts as participation is left to the discretion of the individual faculty members, most of whom are experienced educators.
“The level of engagement for each individual student on the face of it is going to be very different,” Jude explains. In the course, inherently chatty students asked questions and engaged the professor and class in debate, whereas more-reserved students remained alert and listened, but spoke up only occasionally. “That’s the same level of participation in my book,” Jude says.
Jude holds out hope for even seemingly disengaged students, disgruntled about having to give up their winter break. “Every once in a while, you see the glimmer of ‘Huh, that’s interesting.’ That is participating in Citizen Science, as well. If it’s learning by osmosis, I want them there.”
The workshop is organized into three modules. One focuses on problem-based learning in a classroom setting, the second introduces students to computer-based modeling approaches to studying science, and the third gives students an opportunity to perform laboratory experiments. Twenty-four sections of approximately 20 students each completed the program. The modules ran concurrently, so three sets of eight sections each tracked through the program together.
The professors have the freedom to organize their sections as they see fit. During the problem-based learning module, students hand in their only required assignment: a half-page article modeled after the “Really?” column in the New York Times, which evaluates the scientific justification for health-related claims in layman’s terms. With that assignment, Jude is hoping to teach the students to identify credible sources for answering a scientific question. All of the students in a particular section write about the same topic and then trade papers to perform their own “peer review.”
For each module, Jude wants all of the students to do at least one common activity. For the rest of the program, faculty can choose what their students do, letting the students’ interests be the guide. For example, in the laboratory, the students can perform experiments in which they transform bacteria by adding plasmids, or short pieces of DNA that can be passed from cell to cell. In the computer lab, the students can model the spread of infectious diseases or antibiotic resistance.
The capstone of the workshop is the final project. Working individually or in groups, each student must complete a final project that demonstrates some aspect of what they have learned about infectious disease. The eight sections that tracked through the program together presented their projects to each other on the last day of the workshop.
The projects took a wide variety of forms. Rosette Cirillo, who plans to major in literature and philosophy, worked with a group that did a laboratory study of bacteria in bathrooms on the Bard campus. In addition to counting bacterial colonies, they also surveyed students to test their misconceptions about cleanliness.
“I don’t know the next time I’m going to be able to take a lab course,” Cirillo says. “Doing the fieldwork and breaking it down in statistics is interesting for people who don’t usually do it.”
Professor Marcienne Wright’s class decided to go in a different direction. They used “food art” to make cakes that look like different infectious agents. “We’ll be eating Bacillus anthracis, Vibrio cholerae, and a couple of other nasty microorganisms as we talk about the epidemiological impact these illnesses have had on the world,” Wright says. “I’m very proud of the students. They’ve owned this project.”
Even with the last week still left to go, Jude believed the program had been a success. “The students are here. They’re attending class. They’re participating outside of class,” Jude says.
But true success probably can’t be gauged until these students are seniors, she says. If the program has the effect she hopes, students will take their science requirement earlier and take more than just the one-class minimum.
“We’re not trying to switch everyone over to a science major, but we have a number of biology majors who take more than one literature course because they enjoy it,” Jude says. “The same thing could happen—a literature student who enjoys science could take more than one science class. We wanted students to have an early experience that would give them enough time to dabble in science, rather than waiting until spring of their senior year.”
For Botstein and Jude, the most important sign of success will be if other schools implement their own version of Citizen Science. “My hope is that our success with this will inspire imitators,” Botstein says.
Board officials declined to disclose how much the program cost the school, but it did receive a grant from the Christian A. Johnson Endeavor Foundation.
Although Bard is a small school, with approximately 1,600 undergraduates, such a program should be easier for larger schools to implement. At a larger school, “you have an entire army of graduate students and postdocs” Botstein says. “The larger the infrastructure in science and engineering, the easier it is to do this.”
In addition, Botstein says, faculties with graduate programs in science should be interested in improving the science literacy of the general population. “Public investment in research science would be more secure if the public understood what scientists did,” he says.
Jude notes that schools that have a one-month intercession between semesters could easily incorporate a program like Citizen Science into their curricula. Other schools could schedule something as part of freshman orientation. “This is a movable model if schools are interested,” she says. Lack of science literacy “is not a problem that’s unique to Bard.”
Plans are already under way for next year. The teachers are hashing out what did and didn’t work. They hope they get the chance to come back next year and introduce science to a new crop of citizens.
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