Focus of the Center for Science in the Liberal Arts

Assessment of Student Learning in Undergraduate Science

David Lopatto and co-workers have developed several surveys aimed at discerning student learning in undergraduate science education. The first set of these surveys focuses upon student learning that occurs when students engage in student-faculty research projects (ROLE and SURE). The second survey is aimed at learning that occurs in research-like experiences that are embedded in coursework (CURE). The third project, in the pilot phase, is aimed at understanding the nature of student learning that occurs in the context of interdisciplinary science courses. With HHMI funding, collaborators from Grinnell, St. Olaf, Carleton, Whitman, and Hope Colleges are launching a 4-year project to assess interdisciplinary teaching and learning. Carleton's Science Education Center (SERC) is also providing expertise and online space for project collaboration and dissemination. Project activities include:

  • Conducted interviews with faculty who have taught interdisciplinary courses and students who have completed interdisciplinary courses to determine their goals and understanding of interdisciplinary learning.
  • Developed survey instruments to survey faculty members about learning goals for disciplinary and interdisciplinary courses and a companion pre- and post-course survey instrument for student completing disciplinary and interdisciplinary courses (RISC). These will be implemented on at least five campuses. 
  • Developed a protocol and recruited faculty members from five campuses to engage in teams in inquiry into student learning in their own courses using qualitative methods of analyzing student work. Training of faculty members has begun and will continue in the fall.

Science Education: The Value of Undergraduate Research - James M. Gentile

Click here for more information and survey links.

Increasing the number and success of members of groups traditionally under-represented in science

In the late 1980’s we began to worry in an organized way about the lack of women and students of color among our science graduates. Data analysis indicated that there was no correlation of grades in introductory math and science courses with standardized exam scores or high school grades, but correlations with being a first generation college student, graduating from high school with < 50% college goers, or being a domestic student of color. Review of the literature and conversations with our students revealed barriers to the successful study of science to be: acclimation to student life and lack of supportive community, different learning styles, and lack of role models and contexts for the study of science. We devised a program to address these issues including: a pre-orientation program (The Grinnell Science Project, or GSP) to help students feel welcomed and socially prepared for the study of science at Grinnell, curricular and pedagogical changes involving more engaged learning to help address the multiplicity of learning styles, more opportunities of student-faculty research to provide more effective mentoring. Dramatic improvements to our facilities have created much more inviting spaces to build community and to support more engaged learning in classrooms and laboratories. Although we can draw no causal relationships, we find that grades of domestic student of color have improved markedly and the number or that group has increased by about a faculty of three. The number of women graduating with degrees in physical and computational science has increased by about a factor of two.

Promoting inquiry-based learning in STEM as a pathway to excellent learning for citizens, learners and scientists.

Helping students make connections

Bridging projects

(Content under construction)

Consideration of conceptual nodes that cross science disciplines and ways that those nodes can be used to connect and enrich student learning.

  • Day long discussions of possible nodes and their connections to our teaching during a fall Science Division faculty retreat. Examples that evolved include equilibrium, visualization, probability, mechanism, and information.
  • Week long workshop with faculty members teaching courses in the first two years in biology and chemistry. Outcomes included:
    • Nodes identified that crossed several courses included, dynamics, energetic, equilibrium, and modeling. Times and topics where these nodes are dealt with in courses were identified and materials used in their presentation were shared.
    • Molecules that might serve as a theme for a year were identified. Penicillin and alcohol dehydrogenase were identified as subjects that could be used in several courses.

Developing New Interdisciplinary Courses


Fall 2009, Professors Vida Praitis (Biology) and Samuel A. Rebelsky (Computer Science)

In this interdisciplinary course, students will explore Bioinformatics, the application of computing tools to problems in the biological sciences, particularly problems related to genetics. Although students will use some existing bioinformatic tools, the foci of the course will be on identifying appropriate biological problems for analysis by computer and on the development of computational tools to support such analysis. Most of the work for the course will be conducted by interdisciplinary teams. Prerequisite: BIO-251 or CSC-151.

Health Care Policy

Fall 2009, Professor Chuck Sullivan (Biology), Grinnell-in-Washington semester

Each of us has visited a doctor's office. Yet, as consumers of health care, how well do we know our health care system? In this course, we will take an interdisciplinary approach to learning about the U.S. health care system. First we will study the historical origins of the US system and health care's position as an employee benefit for many, a government program for others, and an elusive goal for far too many citizens. We will also focus on health care from a variety of perspectives by taking advantage of offices and organizations in Washington DC that make and affect health policy from political (efforts to expand access to health care); economic (high costs of care and the growing number of uninsured); ethical (stem cells research, organ transplantation, and rationing of care); social (public health policy and access to health care); and biomedical (new treatments for cancer and development of drugs) perspectives. Finally, we will be in Washington at the right time, perhaps, to witness major reforms in health care promised by both parties in the fall, 2008 presidential election.

Applied Policy Analysis - Climate Change

Fall 2009, Professors Elaine Marzluff (Chemistry) and Wayne Moyer (Political Science)

Purpose: Climate change is one of the most pressing issues on the policy agenda, one that is likely to be important throughout the lives of today’s students. We plan to analyze bring together in the course the approaches to climate change of scientists and policy-makers. Scientists try to determine what is actually happening to the earth’s climate, how specified actions might mitigate climate change, and what actions will be necessary for the world to adapt. Policy makers decide on the actions to take. Scientific evidence plays into policy decisions, but it is only one of a number of factors that policy-makers consider. Frequently science is misused in the policy debate. Understanding the policy process is informed by literature from a variety of disciplines in the social sciences and humanities. We hope our seminar will give students a better understanding of the complexity of climate change policy than they could get from either a science course or a social science course.

Course Description: This course will analyze different aspects of policy to mitigate climate change, bringing to bear the perspectives of science and social science. Topics for discussion will include: 1) assessment of the scientific data on climate change; 2) Discussion of the ways that climate change is a policy issue; 3) evaluation of strategies and technologies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to address climate change; 4) explanation of policy development up to the present, as policy has been impacted by scientific, economic and political factors, the changing climate change agenda, decision-making at international, national and local arenas and the interplay between the various arenas; 5) policy recommendations for effective and feasible action to meet the climate change challenge of 2009 in international and U.S. policy arenas.

Humanities/Science Special Topic - Space, Time, and Motion

Fall 2009, Professors Sujeev Wickramasekara (Physics) and Tammy Nyden (Philosophy)

This is an interdisciplinary study of the philosophical developments of the concepts of space, time and motion in the late seventeenth-century and early twentieth-century. It is anchored on an interactive re-creation of the study of physics at each time-period based on original textbooks, lectures, demonstrations and experiments. The course will focus on key philosopher-scientists including Descartes, Leibniz, Newton, Poincar, Lorentz, Einstein and Minkowski, as well as pivotal experiments including airpump, freefall, Michelson-Morley and æ-decay experiments. The course will end with reflections on the competing epistemological and ontological views during each time-period and the nature of theory change in science. In addition to the above information, we have re-created apparatus to allow us to carry out experiments that were pivotal in early 18th century discussions of free fall and force: Fall Apparatus, a Roberval Balance, and an Apparatus for Oblique and Compound Collision. These pieces were built according to specifications from an 18th century textbook (Gravesande's Mathematical Elements of Natural Philosophy, 1747 edition, which our students will be reading in the course. This textbook served as instructions for building these instruments for the European scientific community at the time and was also largely responsible for spreading Newtonianism throughout the Continent. Students will also have access to a copy of a manuscript containing notes from a 17th century physics course. On the 20th century side of things, students will be performing the Michelson-Morley and æ-decay experiments as well as reading the writings of 20th century physicists and philosophers on space, time and motion. One of our main goals is to consider how philosophy, politics, religion, economics, developments in mathematics and technology, and institutional and national cultures have affected the history of physics.


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