PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Jean Porterfield

F21 Class of 2004 Statement

Jean Porterfield is Assistant Professor of Biology at St. Olaf College.

I am excited to be nominated by St. Olaf College to PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century, and to become involved with Project Kaleidoscope’s commitment to increasing the quality of undergraduate education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In this essay I would like to respond to the initiative “that the increasingly interdisciplinary manner in which science is practiced is reflected in the environment in which science is learned.”

Even in my relatively short scientific career, I have seen my field (biology) become more interdisciplinary in nature. This has been apparent on a large scale, for example, with the proliferation of graduate and undergraduate programs at exciting interfaces ranging from neuroscience to environmental studies. However, it has also been apparent on a personal scale. As an undergraduate I received a BS in Zoology; this meant that I did not “have” to take Botany or Biochemistry and could focus on other biology courses. Ironically, these are two of the fields that have intrigued me the most as a graduate student and as a professor, and I sometimes regret my narrow focus as an undergraduate! My point is that the longer I am a scientist, the more I experience an expansion of fields that are integral to my research and teaching, and the more I try to challenge myself to participate in that expansion. Here at St. Olaf my research and teaching continues to bridge environmental and molecular fields within biology.

However interdisciplinary biology itself is, the interdisciplinary nature of STEM is much broader. St. Olaf College is a wonderful environment for utilizing interdisciplinary connections to reach more students, both in science and non-science fields. Along with a mathematician, I currently have the opportunity to pursue research with undergraduates that hones in on a connection between our respective areas of expertise; we are pursuing funding for this endeavor and are encouraged by the number of programs that seem excited to fund such projects. I also will have the opportunity team-teach a course in Fall 2005 that explores how different ways of learning impact different people’s knowledge of and interest in science. These are just two ways that interdiscplinarity in the broader sense is becoming more a part of my own career.

There are many aspects of our undergraduate colleges and granting agencies that facilitate not only practicing interdisciplinary science but also representing science as interdisciplinary. However, there still seem to be some barriers to conveying this reality to our undergraduate students. The very nature of having academic departments can unintentionally block students from connecting material across courses. While a drastic solution would be to absolve departments, another solution is direct integration of material across courses, where students in multiple courses collaborate on research projects. As laboratory courses tend to replace “canned” labs with investigative work, such a merge could happen naturally. Another potential barrier to conveying STEM interdisciplinarity to students is the concept of the “science requirement” for graduation that often haunts our non-science students. One way to negate the stigma that a science course is vastly different from other courses is to recognize the stigma and work through it, as we hope to try to do in our team-taught course (mentioned above).