Plenary III: Spotlighting the Host Institution

Motivating Students to Pursue Careers in STEM Fields
The 2003 PKAL Assemblies
What Works - What Matters - What Lasts: The Roles and Responsibilities of Leaders in Undergraduate STEM

Oberlin College
September 5 - 7, 2003

Plenary III: Spotlighting the Host Institution
Friday, September 5, 2003
7:30 - 8:15 pm

Nancy S. Dye, President- Oberlin College
Dennison Smith, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology- Oberlin College
Janice E. Thornton, Associate Professor of Neuroscience & Biology, Department of Neuroscience & Biology- Oberlin College
Karla M. Parsons-Hubbard, Assistant Professor of Geology, Department of Geology- Oberlin College


Nancy Dye, Oberlin's president, demonstrated clearly the role of the president as advocate for strong sciences, describing the centrality of the sciences on her campus, as signaled by the siting and design of the new facility for science and as appropriate for a liberal arts college that sees the study and teaching of science as a humanistic endeavor. (see: Scaling the "Wall of Science" The New Science Center at Oberlin College)

Dye spoke about visiting students working in faculty research labs, and how the new spaces and new instruments were making a difference. She reported on surveys from alumni that documented that it was the research experience, working with faculty in labs, that transformed students into scientists. Dye also spoke about how facilities and curriculum had to adjust to the new realities in science, pointing to the interdisciplinary opportunities in the current program at Oberlin. She also emphasized that strong science programs at the introductory level help transform uncertain entering students into majors.

Smith outlined the characteristics of a successful interdisciplinary program:

  • that it had high quality, rigorous introductory courses and provided many resources to make certain students at that level succeed

  • that there are significant hands-on research opportunities at all stages in the undergraduate career, both in teaching labs and in independent research

  • that there are great colleagues, making it an honor to be a part of that learning community; colleagues who keep each other honest and who share a dedication and commitment to enhancing student learning of the highest quality.

(see: Introductory Neuroscience at Oberlin College, The Occasional Paper on Neuroscience, Page 20)

Parsons-Hubbard addressed the theme of undergraduate research from the student's perspective. She outlined how students develop their own research interests, becoming a scientist, by being engaged in a faculty directed research project. At Oberlin, the winter term (one month) serves as a enticement for majors to engage in intense research experiences. She also described Oberlin's support for students to present at and attend professional meetings. Such experiences provide undergraduates with a view of future opportunities, illustrating what it means to be a scientist in the larger professional community.


Assembly participants responses to the Oberlin presentation and tour reinforced:

  • the value of the introductory course

    • high-quality introductory courses give students the confidence that they can complete a hard intellectual task; this is a rewarding experience that attracts majors

    • the freshman year seminar, an introductory class taken by majors and non-majors alike, can introduce students to the excitement of neuroscience programs (or geology or other majors)

  • the importance of a well-constructed and supported research-rich learning environment

    • need for top-down support that provides resources of time, people, spaces and instrumentation

    • provide student lab spaces and develop a visible tradition of a research-active learning community

    • consider options for both on- and off-campus research opportunities for students, which have different benefits

    • cultivate, with faculty, an atmosphere of collaborative research, creating a community of science

    • connect to alumni researchers to create networking research opportunities for current students

  • the contribution of good spaces for science

    • design research labs