Breakout session A:
College of Wooster: An established track record for preparing students...

Breakout sessions: A
The College of Wooster: An established track record for preparing students for STEM careers

Saturday, September 6, 2003
2:30 - 3:25 pm

Lori Bettison-Varga, Associate Professor of Geology, Faculty Grants Associate- College of Wooster
Judy Amburgey-Peters, Assistant Professor of Chemistry, Department of Chemistry- College of Wooster
Iain Crawford, Vice President for Academic Affairs- College of Wooster


The College of Wooster has an established track record of preparing students for successful careers in STEM fields through out Independent Study (IS) program, consisting of three-semesters of student research required for graduation. The IS is the capstone experience in a curriculum that highlights inquiry-based learning. The college reviews all programs and majors on a 10-year cycle, and all of our science departments have made changes in their curricular in the past decade in order to better prepare students for STEM careers. Geology and biology have made substantive change sin their course content and sequencing; the physics department has integrated problem-solving across the curriculum; and chemistry has worked to develop a writing intensive organic laboratory course and learning communities. Recently, a revised major in biochemistry and molecular biology was approved, and new postions in psychology have resulted in discussions regarding a neuroscience major.

Elaine Seymour, in Talking about Learning, suggests that all students would find science more attractive if the material was presented in a manner relevant to their lives, and if the ‘weed-out' mentality did not exist. Faculty in our STEM departments have worked hard to develop topical non-major courses that have relevant and interesting content (examples include oceanography, environmental geology, diseases, and forensics). Wooster faculty attended the SENCER 2001 summer institute and additional courses have been developed to meet the goals of that program. These courses have been quite successful in teaching non-majors what science is and how it works; however– given that most of these courses do not feed into courses in science majors, they have not been successful in attracting students to STEM fields. For example, a student might be attracted to chemistry after having taken the forensics course, but because s/he would not have begun the major sequence during the first semester, it is extremely difficult to complete major requirements within a four-year period. This brings about a seemingly insurmountable challenge: how does one provide the relevance students desire while at the same time meet the content goals needed for continuation in advanced courses? How do we ensure that students continuing on have the skills they need to succeed in more challenging course work? Confronting student readiness, with already packed introductory courses filled with the usual pre-med students, especially challenges faculty teaching introductory chemistry and biology. Inevitably, faculty make the choice to focus their efforts on majors, and although interested in teaching non-majors, attracting more students to their departments from a pool of students not seen to be equipped with the necessary skills is not high on their list of priorities.

STEM faculty at Wooster have had on-going discussions about the effectiveness of courses in our "learning across the disciplines" all-college requirement, and have had a variety of brainstorming sessions about creative alternatives to traditional entryways into our STEM majors. Additionally, several departments have been working to create learning communities to provide support for students working in upper division courses. Our team is interested in learning community modles for introductory students that might be disciplinary or interdisciplinary in nature.


Independent Study: The Heart of a Wooster Education