Now that I have a full semester under my belt, I’ve spent some time in self evaluation… and I’ve spent the past couple weeks, perhaps months, mulling over what I consider a huge problem with the “modern sophomore student” (or, at least the type at Allegheny). Simply stated, these students have very strong intellectual talents but express little or no interest in actually engaging scientific material.
I’ve tried to organize this blog post in a couple of different ways and I’m not really satisfied with any. So, here goes. My apologies if my thoughts are scattered… and I’m hoping for some dialogue from the larger community.
Undergraduate research is mandatory for Biology majors at Allegheny College — to graduate, each student must fulfill a two-semester Senior Comprehensive Research project (which they develop during their Junior Seminar and/or during their 1st semester of their Senior Comp). During the Spring Semester prior to their senior year, upcoming seniors select (and rank) 3 faculty members with whom they wish to do their Senior Comp project with; we meet as a faculty and see how things would look if we paired up every student with their 1st choice and make modifications as needed. Generally, students get to do their Senior Comp project with their 1st or 2nd choice and thus pursue a research project they are interested in. Many of our seniors are interested and they end up turning out very nice theses. However, the majority of our sophomores are often disinterested and not engaged in scientific inquiry. This has me wondering whether it is them, us (as faculty), or a combination of the two. How do we balance teaching large classes of sophomores the foundations of biology while promoting their critical thinking? How can we spark their enthusiasm to ask questions and to think beyond their next exam?
Is it Them?
Have modern undergraduate students changed since I was in college? Do they relay on txt message communication so much that they’ve lost any level of comfort in speaking out loud in front of a group? Are risks rewarded in high school or are they discouraged because they detract from the flow of class? I spend quite a bit of time thinking about these types of topics because many of my students are sophomores. Of the 4 class sections that I’ve taught in my first year at Allegheny, 3 of those sections are sophomore-level courses. As a new faculty, I don’t yet have a solid reputation within our department, so I actively recruit students to work with me; most of these students come from the classes that I teach. Part of my interest in these topics is personal because some of these students will end up working with me during their senior year… and I want to work with students that are excited about doing science. Identifying students early in their career that I think would be a good fit in my lab certainly has its benefits. Like most faculty, I am more interested in recruiting students that are interested in asking questions and who aren’t afraid of taking risks than recruiting students with a 4.0 GPA but have little interest in anything that isn’t on their next exam. I spend quite a bit of time conversing with students to “feel them out”, because their personality in a large classroom setting might be fundamentally different than a small group setting.
Is it Us?
Although our curriculum is set up so that students have to develop an independent research project, I’m afraid that we don’t successfully develop these skills until our students are juniors or seniors. As such, I’ve also spent considerably more time than I ever thought I would thinking about how we teach our intro courses at Allegheny. Are all the topics that we teach absolutely necessary? For example, would we service our students better by cutting Hardy Weinberg Equilibrium out of our intro “Genetics, Development, Evolution” course and spend more time discussing case studies related to topics such as evolutionary development that promote active learning? How do we set a culture for this in the classroom? How can we change student customs from being lectured at to engaging with the material and actually thinking and processing it?
I have a feeling that this isn’t a unique problem with Allegheny… and I have a feeling that many of us faculty are frustrated about what we can do. I am confident in the liberal arts model of education and recognize the benefits of their curricula. I also recognize that we might be losing some of our best upcoming scientists because we are not capitalizing on developing their potential research strengths earlier on in their academic careers.