The Grinnell Science Project is committed to developing the talents of all students interested in science and mathematics, especially those from groups underrepresented in the sciences -- students of color, first-generation college students, and women in physics, mathematics and computer science.
The program developed over several years, drawing on national studies and efforts, and aimed at addressing barriers to success in the sciences. It has involved curricular and mentoring changes, activities and structures that foster acclimation to college life and a community of scientists, and improvement of student achievement.
Barriers to Achievement
Grinnell Science Project (GSP) Pathways to Success
Comparable rates of science major completion for all groups of students
The Grinnell Science Project was developed at Grinnell College with funds from the Lilly Endowment, Inc, the National Science Foundation, General Telephone and Electronic Foundation, and Grinnell College.
The Grinnell Science Project (GSP) was created in the early 1990s to address a problem indicated by data faculty and staff gathered about Grinnell students. It was found that students—particularly those of color, women, and first-generation college students—were entering Grinnell College with an avowed interest in pursuing degrees in the sciences, but abandoning their academic goals when they failed to do well in introductory sciences courses.
Based upon our data analysis, we concluded that the factors interfering with academic success in the sciences were more likely to be socioeconomic or environmental rather than academic. Our intervention strategy, then, needed to be more focused on social issues than on academic remediation.
We developed a program aimed at addressing three barriers to success in the sciences experienced by students we identified as members of groups that are under-represented in the sciences: unsuccessful acclimation to college life; learning styles that do not respond to traditional pedagogy; and a lack of mentoring and role models.
Drawing on national studies and efforts, we developed a program aimed at addressing three barriers to success in the sciences. To address these issues, the program now called the Grinnell Science Project was devised over a series of years. It has involved curricular changes, activities and structures that foster acclimation to college life and a community of scientists, and improvement of student achievement.
The Grinnell Science Project includes program objectives designed to respond to each barrier:
- To provide role models and contexts for the study of science through mentoring and community building
- To respond to different learning styles through creating interactive science/mathematics courses and increased opportunities for mentored research
- To foster acclimation to college life through providing a pre-orientation
Curricular and Pedagogical Changes
The curricular and pedagogical development component of the program has aimed at changing the basic fabric of introductory courses by providing faculty members with a nurturing environment, mentoring, and the intensive development time they need to make such changes. The goals of our curricular and pedagogical changes are to provide challenging, not remedial, problems which engage the students in hands-on investigation and mutual realization of the solutions and to respond to different learning styles. We started with several experiments. We launched a series of one-credit, add-on courses that students could co-enroll in with the standard introductory courses. These one-credit courses provided students with interactive ways of learning material, and provided platforms both for more engaged learning by students who wanted some additional work, and for pedagogical experimentation by faculty. In addition, one faculty member decided to experiment with a variation of the workshop (no lecture) physics approach pioneered by Priscilla Laws, and the entire computer science (CS) faculty decided to transform their introductory courses into a workshop format.
After two to three years, faculty members became convinced that learning improved dramatically as a result of these experiments. As a result, the engaged pedagogies were integrated into the standard courses, and the one-credit courses were abolished. In physics, roughly half the students now opt for the workshop format and half in the more standard lecture-lab approach. The first course in CS is taught entirely in the workshop format, and substantial portions of many other CS courses use active learning approaches. Where many Computer Science departments continue to disallow students working together, thereby discouraging students who value teamwork, our curriculum encourages teamwork. Some chemistry sections are taught entirely in a workshop format and others use many engaged learning techniques, including research-like projects and learning in the context of a social problem (global warming, water quality, etc.). Psychology and mathematics also use a number of engaged learning approaches. In all, these changes promote increased levels of mentoring at all levels for the curriculum.
The introductory biology course is entirely based on a research project. Where many biology departments are struggling to fit more and more material into the introductory course, and only a few have even broached the idea of workshop-style teaching, Grinnell’s Biology Department has decided that the most important learning outcome of the introductory course is to get students to “think like a biologist.” Students in the introductory course read original research papers, design and conduct their own experiments, analyze data, and present results in forms appropriate to the discipline, including posters and research papers.
By participating in science education that is structured in a fashion much more like science is practiced, students are engaged in the practice of science and the relationship with the instructor becomes a mentor-apprentice relationship.
Mentoring and Community Building
A primary tool for accomplishing the goals of the program was weaving a “web of mentoring,” not only close mentoring of students by their teachers, but also student to student and faculty to faculty (who support one another as they try pedagogical experiments). Curricular and pedagogical changes are both substantial and nearly universal. The GSP was also greatly influential in the design of new science facilities at Grinnell College. While the initial impetuous for the effort came from some key individuals, the execution and continuous improvement lies within virtually all science faculty as well as student life professionals. This high level of involvement, including curricular development, community building activities, and mentoring, insures sustainability. We have also established a Science Learning Center which, along with the Math Lab, trains peer mentors to support and assist students.
We designed a one-week pre-orientation, intended to build confidence and to alleviate the anxieties of the first year, since these may provide an uncomfortable campus climate for a student and hinder his or her academic performance. This pre-orientation is held the week preceding Grinnell’s general orientation for new students. Using the students’ college applications and their transcripts, we look at risk factors for poor performance in introductory science courses (none of which involve academic preparation) and select 70-90 students who indicate an interest in science on their application. These selected students are invited to participate in the GSP pre-orientation after they have accepted admission at the College. This has resulted in participation of 25-35 students in the early years and 40-45 in recent years.
The selection of these targeted students is based on their being one or more of the following:
- a first generation-college student;
- a domestic student of color; and/or
- a woman interested in physics or computational sciences.
The aims of the pre-orientation include:
- providing a student cohort in which relationships and a support network may be built;
- creating supporting relationships between students and a variety of science faculty;
- acquainting students and helping them to feel comfortable with an array of support services the College provides;
- identifying particular academic or writing weaknesses; and
- helping students become comfortable with the campus geography, the library, the computers, and residential life.
The GSP pre-orientation students and their families, many of whom are involved in college education for the first time, have the opportunity to meet other students, learn about the services and structures of the college, and meet faculty and staff. Since the target population consists of students who express an interest in science and mathematics, they come with common interests. These students meet faculty members who teach introductory science and mathematics courses and hear faculty expectations for students in these courses. Students also participate in faculty-led sample classes and a research-like project. Student life and academic support professionals become familiar and friendly resources as well. Additionally, faculty members participate in many of the social events, starting by dining with the students and the families when they arrive on campus. The burdens of adjusting to the many new demands made on the students are relieved by the personal attention they receive during the pre-orientation. Furthermore, the participants feel like “experts” when other new students arrive, and can offer directions and advice to them, further bolstering their confidence.
By promoting student achievement and excellence in teaching and learning, the Grinnell Science Project addresses the issue of increasing the diversity of the STEM workforce, using a range of activities all of which are rooted in intensive mentoring and building a community of scientists (students and faculty alike) that supports persistence in science through and after graduation:
- Prior to the Grinnell Science Project, from 1992–1994, an average of 42 science majors graduated annually who were women and eight who were students of color. By 2008, those numbers had jumped to 90 women (a 114% increase) and 21 students of color (a 162.5% increase).
- Over 500 students have participated in the pre-orientation program, and they earned higher average grades compared with those who were invited but did not attend.
- Thousands of other students have benefited from the curricular and pedagogical changes, as well as from the mentoring relationships that have been established by GSP.
- Nearly 70% of the College’s science majors enter graduate degree programs. As reported by the National Science Foundation, Grinnell ranks eighth on a per-capita basis among all U.S. higher education institutions in producing science graduates who go on to pursue the Ph.D.
Administrative Pre-Orientation Directors
- 2000 – present: Joyce Stern (academic advising)
Faculty Pre-Orientation Directors
- Janet Davis (computer science)
- Minna Mahlab (science learning center)
- Steve Sieck (Chemistry)
- Jake Willig Onwuachi (Physics)
Program Foundational Leadership (1993)
Students speak out about their experience in the sciences at Grinnell College. These are YouTube videos created for the 2008 dedication of the Robert N. Noyce '49 Science Center.
Quotes from GSP Pre-Orientation Participants
"The week of orientation provided by GSP was a lifesaver for a student from a small high school in a small town. Each of the activities was designed to provide a very real structure of support, by introducing participants to science faculty, upperclassmen in the sciences, and one another.… I would not be a scientist today if it were not for GSP."
"Knowing other minorities and women who thought that physics was cool and math was interesting was a relief. Here was a community of my peers who liked some of the same things I did and came from similar backgrounds. Throughout the next four years many of those people became close friends and study partners. ... Not only were there people available for you to talk to if you were having difficulties, there was also a team of mentors who believed that you could succeed. Despite the fact that you were a girl and the first person in your family to go to college, you could go to the best medical school in the country, or pursue a doctorate in physics, or in my case become a veterinarian. You need only look at the achievements of my peers in the [Grinnell] Science Project to see that this program is a huge success."
"By the time the other students came to campus, I already knew the campus. And I got to meet all of the professors ahead of time. It was really great to meet 30 other people. And one of them is one of my closest friends right now. I knew 30 people and I didn’t feel so lost. It was a very smooth transition into college. They gave us a taste of what the workshop courses might be like, and it sounded interesting."
"If I didn't have the Grinnell Science Project, I would feel very lost. I wouldn't know who I could go to to look for help. I know that if I need help I have people I can get it from. The Grinnell Science has TA's that I can call for help if I need it. If I didn't have the Grinnell Science Project, I would have had a harder time adjusting to work and the school here."
"I do not remember the games and workshops we did, but I remember meeting the faculty, their advice, and, most effectively, the feeling that they expected that I could and would learn. I felt included in the informal science club."
"The Grinnell Science Project laid the foundation for the exceptional mentoring I have received from the Grinnell Biology faculty. The relationships I have with my mentors from Grinnell have been instrumental to my success as a biologist. For example, when I was considering graduate studies, several faculty fielded questions about graduate school and read drafts of my admission statement. … In preparing for my first academic application and interview, these are the people I called to get insight into the process, answer practice questions, and read my application materials. As my career continues to develop, I know I can rely upon their advice and encouragement."
Quotes from Students of Workshop Classes and Science Alumni
"It works out better to work in groups than by yourself for the workshop, because maybe you don’t understand something and it helps to discuss with the other person exactly what you are doing and say, 'Does this make sense to you? Do you understand what is going on?' That helps a lot."
-- Biology Workshop student
"I get a feel for how the real scientists did their research—feeling like a scientist and how they came up with their theories. I learn how to DO physics. We understand how to do something—not just mathematically solve problems."
-- Workshop Physics student
"I like being able to think of the ideas in an interactive way, and being able to do hands-on stuff—because I actually understand it. Physics isn't my 'thing.' I know that. But I'm beginning to really understand it—not just as formulas that I plug into an equation."
-- Workshop Physics student
"I particularly appreciated the strong emphasis on inquiry-based education, as I have always learned best through hands-on work… Student/faculty mentored research played a big role in my decision to continue on to graduate-level work in science…I have since earned a doctorate at the California Institute of Technology... I am currently a postdoctoral associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology."
-- biology alum 2002, NSF Graduate Research Fellow Honorable Mention
Quotes from Student Mentors
"I had to think of many different ways to explain a concept and not just the concept itself. It made me think more critically about why and not just the how."
"I learned how to present material in different ways so that a variety of students can understand it, and I learned to be mindful of individual learning styles."
"Mentoring helped my public speaking skills immensely, and I continue to use those skills in my career."
"I definitely feel…more confident talking to others, especially in a teaching setting. I use this new confidence in everything I do.…."
"…I am planning on becoming a teacher or professor, a decision I would not have made if I had not mentored a class."
GSP Awarded White House Honor
The Grinnell Science Project (GSP) has been honored with the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring, administered by the National Science Foundation.
The award recognizes GSP’s efforts to increase the number of students from underrepresented groups who earn degrees in the sciences. GSP was created in 1992 in response to internal studies indicating that students from traditionally underrepresented groups often entered Grinnell with interest in science but abandoned their goals when they were unsuccessful in introductory courses.
“The true winners of this prestigious award are our science students,” said Grinnell President Raynard S. Kington, M.D., Ph.D. “The reputation of the Grinnell Science Project has been strengthened by their individual successes, and collectively by the dedicated Grinnell science faculty who mentor them.”
Outcomes of the Grinnell Science Project include:
- A triple-digit increase in the number of students of color and a two-fold increase in women science majors between 1992 and 2008.
- More than 500 students who participated in the pre-orientation program earned higher average grades than those who did not participate.
- Newly designed classrooms that encourage teamwork and a sense of community, and flexible lab spaces that support research opportunities beginning with the first semester.
- A model for other colleges and universities validated by grant support from the Lilly Endowment, GTE Foundation and the National Science Foundation.
“The biggest measure of success is that components of the Grinnell Science Project are now mainstream throughout our science curriculum,” said Jim Swartz, director of the college’s Center for Science in the Liberal Arts. “Grinnell students feel that they are part of a scientific community, we accommodate different learning styles with different pedagogical approaches, and we involve students in faculty research from the beginning of their experience here.”
The Presidential Awards went to 11 individuals and four organizations. Jim Swartz, chemistry, received the Grinnell award at a White House ceremony on Jan. 27. GSP faculty Leslie Gregg-Jolly (biology) and Mark Schneider (physics) and Dean of the College Paula Smith participated with Swartz in the NSF symposium and presentation activities.
Dean of the College Paula Smith and professors Mark Schneider (physics) and Leslie Gregg-Jolly (biology) met with U.S. Senators Tom Harkin (left photo) and Charles Grassley (right photo) during a week of activities surrounding receipt of the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring for the Grinnell Science Project.
Courtesy of: Offices of Senators Harkin and Grassley
White House press release, White House blog, video clip (starting at about 4 minutes:40 seconds in)