Occasional Paper II: What Works: Leadership— Challenges for the Future

Case study: COSEN: Working Together To Achieve Diversity in Science and Mathematics

Susan Palmer
Executive Director The Carolinas and Ohio Science Education Network (COSEN)

In 1989, eight institutions--Davidson College, Denison University, Duke University, Furman University, Kenyon College, Oberlin College, Ohio Wesleyan University, and the College of Wooster-- joined together as a network to support students traditionally underrepresented in science and mathematics, particularly women and African Americans. The Carolinas and Ohio Science Education Network (COSEN), supported through June, 1995, with funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts, was founded on the premise that science education can be improved when institutions collaborate.

The COSEN program annually sponsors mentoring and peer-group activities for students from each of the eight campuses. Organized by women and African-American faculty, these activities include a one-week conference for first-year students to expose them to hands-on research experiences; three-week summer field research expeditions in geology, marine biology, and tropical biology; and a ten-week summer research program that matches students with faculty from different institutions and concludes with a two-day research conference. Each year, these activities provide enriching science experiences wit a supportive environment to nearly 300 students.

COSEN recognizes the crucial need for students to see themselves as members of a scientific community. Over the course of the project, close relationships among the colleges, their faculty and students have developed. Leaders of the project maintain that not only are more students planning to continue their science studies as a result of the program, but also that "the texture of science on their campuses has been changed by the COSEN initiatives."

The project has sensitized faculty and administrators to the specific needs of the members of underrepresented groups. In addition, the mentors themselves have found a professional camaraderie among their campuses by sharing ideas and responsibilities. Access to electronic networks has been particularly effective at increasing faculty and student interactions and bridging distances between campuses.

COSEN provides its participants with exceptional experiences in the context of a supportive community, where students are able to do science while developing leadership skills and self-confidence. Two 1993 summer research students, Terry Cook and Jennie Everhart, exemplify the success of the COSEN program. Cook, a 1994 graduate of the College of Wooster asserts that "COSEN confirmed my desire to attend graduate school, gave me the skills to choose an appropriate program, and challenged me to continue learning." Cook also believes that her participation in the COSEN programs improved her application for graduate schools and gave her "a clear understanding of the life of a science researcher."

Jennie Everhart, a member of the Denison College class of 1994, claims that prior to her involvement with the COSEN program, she had not considered attending graduate school in the sciences. After working in the Scholars Research Program, the Tropical Biology Field Workshop, and in the Denison campus group, she now intends to enter a Ph.D. program in biology. Through COSEN, Everhart has developed leadership skills and confidence, as president of her campus organization, she has served as a mentor to her peers as they consider their own academic and career paths.

COSEN organizers maintain that their original hypothesis has been supported by their student participants: the support of role models, mentors, and peers is vital to the recruitment and retention of science students. COSEN is also a model for other institutions seeking to increase the participation of underrepresented groups in the sciences.

Collaborations like this help inspire and enable students to develop the motivation, perseverance, confidence, and competence to succeed in science fields. They create nurturing but serious, intellectual communities with increased expectations for success and the tools to make that success possible.