Today Douglas Weldon remembers his freshman college chemistry course as a scene straight from that 1973 Hollywood classic, The Paper Chase. "We met in a big, old amphitheater with seats bolted to the floor," he recalls. "The professor was way up front -- we called him 'God.'"
Today, Weldon sees college classes from the other side, as a psychology professor at Hamilton. And he doesn't teach Hollywood style, as the "sage on a stage." In the past decade, teaching science at the undergraduate level has undergone a revolution -- and Hamilton's faculty have been at the forefront.
"There's broad acceptance that collaborative research projects are some of the best opportunities for students to learn science," says chemistry professor Timothy Elgren, Hamilton's associate dean of faculty and president-elect of the national Council on Undergraduate Research. "Hamilton students have many opportunities to get involved in research. Where we are really leading the charge, though, is in the way we prepare students for the 'capstone experience'" -- through learning to use the scientific literature, thinking about experimental design, considering the ethics of experimentation and even the "mundane yet important" things like lab safety. "One thing that has really changed at Hamilton," Elgren says, "is the way we integrate these experiences, so students are ready for independent work."
Hamilton also leads the field in doing away with intimidating large lecture classes. "After a long dialogue about curriculum revision, we decided that, from the outset, students need experience in small classroom settings where they are not lectured to, but actively engaged in learning," explains geology professor and former New York State Professor of the Year Barbara Tewksbury. Chemistry chair George Shields concurs. "Small classes, early on, is something fundamentally unique about Hamilton," says Shields, who also remembers large classes and indifferent professors from his early college days. "Our department made a philosophical commitment to put more time and resources into students in their first two years."
The physical expression of this teaching philosophy, of course, is Hamilton's new Science Center, slated for completion in the summer of 2005. Construction of the $56-million, state-of-the-art facility began in summer 2002, but long before that, Weldon and a team of science faculty members brainstormed a design plan to support their vision of outstanding science teaching.
Weldon ticks off the new building's features enthusiastically. The amount of space dedicated to science instruction at Hamilton will double. All science departments will be under one roof, to promote interdisciplinary collaborations. There will be more seminar rooms, more computer rooms, more spaces where students can study. No more chairs bolted to the floor; classrooms will have moveable furniture so lessons can flow among instruction, discussion, student presentations and hands-on activities. Large tables (instead of individual tablet armchairs) will facilitate group work. The big tables will also support laptop computers (the building has wireless connectivity throughout). Finally, the amount of space allotted to research labs will grow by 50 percent, an increase that reflects a key aspect of Hamilton's science-education mission: each and every science student -- not just an elite subset, as at peer institutions -- conducts original research and writes a senior thesis.
Although completion is more than a year away, Hamilton's faculty members aren't waiting for the walls to go up; new curricula already make classes more engaging and instruction more effective. New grants are bringing cutting-edge technology to campus for use in course labs, independent study projects, senior research projects and summer research experiences.
In Barbara Tewksbury's class, students are throwing dice, drawing cards from a deck and rolling toy airplanes across a map. This is an introductory geology class, The Geology and Development of Modern Africa, and what looks like a board game is actually a simulation of diamond exploration in North Africa.
Emily Backman '04 will graduate this spring with a degree in geology and a scientific discovery to her credit. During a National Science Foundation-funded expedition to Antarctica in 2001, Backman and the other researchers aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer used sea floor swath bathymetry to unveil for the first time a massive drift below the surface of the icy waters. Now dubbed the Vega Drift, it is the largest known interglacial sediment drift on the Antarctic peninsula.
Last month, Backman culminated her research by presenting a poster, "Depositional Architecture and Seafloor Mapping of the Vega Drift, Erebus and Terror Gulf, Antarctic Peninsula," at the American Geophysical Union annual meeting in San Francisco. "It was interesting to meet all of the researchers whose papers I had read over the last few years," she said. "Although I was a little nervous at first, my poster was well-received and the experience well worth it."
--Caroline O'Shea '07
Over the next few weeks, students will pore over maps to develop a sampling plan; "hire" airplanes to do magnetic surveys that narrow the field of search (the airplanes are toys, the survey data are real); and keep their sampling plan within budgetary and logistical constraints (the cards deal out Monopoly-style fates: "Your vehicle has broken down" or "A worker has found a large, colorless stone!"). Sites selected, it's off to the lab to analyze real samples -- rocks and soil collected from diamond "pipes" (gem-bearing formations) in Africa. Finally, students must justify their exploration prospects to a working geologist employed in precious mineral exploration, brought in just for the occasion.
Tewksbury's class is a far cry from traditional introductory geology: a "survey" course where students learn a little about a laundry list of topics. Her course is interdisciplinary by design, encompassing geology, history, sociology, politics and geography. "Chalk talks" (traditional lectures) are kept to a minimum; Tewksbury feels students learn best when they are teaching themselves, teaching peers or working independently to solve problems.
Diamond exploration is an advanced subject for an introductory geology class, notes Heather McDonald, chair of the geology department at the College of William and Mary, and, like Tewksbury, a past president of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers. "Other faculty can't believe Barbara's first-year geology students can complete these sophisticated problem-solving assignments," McDonald says. "But they do."
Tewksbury, who currently serves as the president of the American Geological Institute, has received numerous grants from the National Science Foundation to lead workshops on innovative teaching. She says she likes to take an approach that is "topical, narrow and deep." "By learning a lot about a narrow range of topics, students become experts," Tewksbury notes. "Instead of 'learn a little, memorize, go on to the next topic,' they quickly get to the point where they can do interesting things."
"I think Barbara is one of the most creative teachers I have met in my life," says McDonald. Others agree; last year Tewksbury's course was recognized by the American Association of Colleges and Universities as a "model college science course" for the way it links science teaching to human issues. Through a program called SENCER (Science Education for New Civic Engagement and Responsibility), the course materials will be available to other college professors nationwide.
"You learn a great deal of geology without really realizing it," enthuses Keith Tyler '06, who took the course his first year. "You get a better grasp on the subject when it's more hands-on." Tyler wasn't planning a geology major when he came to Hamilton but changed his mind after taking the class -- as did four of his classmates.
The next stop on our classroom tour is the Beinecke Student Activities Village Fillius Events Barn. Backlit by sunlight streaming through big windows, two students hold slender, stringed instruments called berimbau. A third student explains how her group made these instruments -- by hand, from native maple wood bent in the shape of an archer's bow.
The traditional instruments accompany a playful, dance-like Brazilian martial art called capoeira, created 400 years ago by African slaves who needed to hide fighting skills from their captors. The students demonstrate how the instruments produce varied sounds -- a coin pressed to the lone string changes its length and hence, pitch; a dry gourd serves as a resonator. Finally, two at a time, the students clasp hands ceremonially and, to the berimbau's percussive melody, whirl across the polished wood floor in the one-armed handstands and low, scissoring kicks of capoeira.
This is no dance class, however, or even a history class; it's a sophomore seminar, specifically The Physics of Musical Sound, co-taught by music professor Samuel Pellman and physics professor Brian Collett. For this assignment, students selected an instrument and studied it from various angles: its history, construction, how it is played, its cultural role -- and the physics behind its sound. Custom sound analysis software, developed by Collett, lets students record sound clips on personal computers, then compare such aspects as frequency, pitch and amplitude to sounds from other, similar instruments.
Alicia Cardina '05, who plays French horn in the Hamilton orchestra and sings with the College Choir and the Hamiltones, took this class last year, and she appreciated the interdisciplinary approach to a challenging subject. "I've been interested in music all my life, but I'd never taken a physics class," she says. "I was a little intimidated. This seemed like a good way to reach into the subject."
Hands-on class activities were Cardina's favorite part of the class. For the instrument-making exercise, she built a French horn from polychloride pressure tubing, with a poster-board bell. "It only had resonance for certain frequencies," she laughs. "So I could only play certain notes."
She also liked the class activity to investigate the acoustical properties of indoor spaces; walking around campus, students took measurements in Wellin Hall, the Chapel and a conference room, among other places. "We popped balloons, then used an oscilloscope and stopwatch to measure how sound faded away in the different rooms," Cardina says. "When our choir goes on tour now, I have a much better understanding of why some spaces are resonant and others are acoustically dead, or how environmental factors affect my horn playing."
In Douglas Weldon's Introduction to Brain and Behavior course, students are studying the human brain -- but not with electrodes or scalpels. The tool of choice is the desktop computer. Each screen displays a realistic image; with a few keystrokes, students can rotate the virtual brain to see distinguishing structures on top and bottom, front and back, right side versus left. With a few more keystrokes, they can slice through the brain in neat cross sections to see the internal structure.
Professor Stephen Festin uses a similar piece of software in his introductory biology class to give students a 3-D view of proteins, which have bulging, irregular shapes. Scientists are intensely interested in protein structure because it's connected to protein function; one real-world application comes in the study of certain diseases, such as Alzheimer's. "The chemical properties of the protein contribute to the disease," says Festin, "but so does the physical structure. To be able to crawl around inside a molecule, to see its shape -- that really helps students understand the way it works. Flat pictures just don't do it."
Scenes like these are repeated all over campus, says Weldon. "We're all doing a lot more with computers." Speaking of computers, step into the basement of Hamilton's library; what looks an oversized refrigerator is actually a supercomputer, purchased in 2002 with a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Winslow Professor of Chemistry George Shields took the lead on the grant, a collaborative effort involving faculty members from six other northeastern colleges (Colgate University, College of the Holy Cross, Connecticut College, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, St. Lawrence University and Vassar College). Together, these institutions formed MERCURY -- the Molecular Education and Research Consortium in Undergraduate Computational chemistry.
The supercomputer's new high-performance servers let MERCURY faculty and students make calculations and run simulations that were previously impossible, Shields says, noting that at Hamilton about 35 undergraduates currently use the computer to carry out research in quantum chemistry and molecular dynamics. They also present their work to their peers in a unique forum -- an annual summer research conference, sponsored by MERCURY, hosted by Hamilton and attended by students and faculty from across the country. "These MERCURY conferences are the first national events devoted solely to undergraduate computational chemistry," Shields notes.
More computing power is on the way; a recent NSF grant to a team of biology professors headed by Festin will equip and support a bioinformatics facility in the new Science Center. Bioinformatics is a fairly new term that encompasses the varied ways computers are used in biology research -- to collect large amounts of data, to organize it and to analyze it. In biology, as in chemistry, problems previously thought to be unsolvable are now being cracked with advanced computing power -- one well-publicized example is the human genome project where computer-controlled robots handled the grunt work of processing lab samples, and other computers cranked through the mountains of data that resulted.
Shayna McHugh '05 may be an undergraduate, but her list of accomplishments as a scientist is already impressive. For the past two years, the chemistry major has been assisting Robin Kinnel, the Silas D. Childs Professor of Chemistry, with his research on biologically active compounds in a sea sponge called Stylotella aurantium.
In the lab, McHugh uses various fractionation techniques on extracts from the sponge in order to separate the many compounds within it. After each separation, she tests the resulting fractions for antibacterial activity in order to determine which ones to continue investigating. Using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) and other forms of spectroscopy, McHugh identifies the molecules present in the fractions and assesses their purity. The compounds found in these sea sponges can have antibacterial, antifungal and anticancer properties, giving them potential application in the world of medicine.
"Professor Kinnel provided a lot of guidance, helping me learn not only new techniques in the laboratory, but also how to think about the overall strategy of research; how to decide what the next step in the project should be," said McHugh, who received an American Society of Pharmacognosy Undergraduate Research Grant to support her project. McHugh's research also earned her the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship -- the premier national undergraduate award in the fields of mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering -- and she was awarded a travel grant by Merck/AAAS that allowed her to present her research last February at the national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Denver, Colo.
"Presenting my work at conferences gave me the opportunity to interact with many other chemists and to hear their comments and suggestions about my project," she said. "Answering their questions helped expand my understanding of my own research."
For now, only a virtual tour of Hamilton's new bioinformatics facility is possible. The 500-square-foot facility will have a central location in the department -- close to the introductory labs, Festin explains. Inside will be dedicated desktop computers, a cart loaded with laptops and servers. The design is intentionally flexible so the room can be used alternately as a classroom, as a resource for students in labs and as a study room. Meanwhile, if another class calls for access to technology -- say, to download data from the Internet or do a library search -- "We'll just roll in the cart and hand out laptops," Festin says.
A cancer researcher who has worked at the National Institutes of Health, Festin says one of his personal goals in coming to Hamilton was to adapt cutting-edge technologies for use in the undergraduate biology curriculum. "My students use the same software and equipment in their classes that I use in the research lab," he says, citing Sequencher, used to assemble bits of genetic code into longer strands, and Genespring, used in silicon genetics research to analyze how genes are expressed when disease is present.
You'll find cutting-edge technology everywhere in Hamilton's science departments, like UV-Vis spectrometers, an isothermal calorimeter and -- coming soon -- a 500 MHz High Field Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectrometer (NMR), which is to be purchased through an NSF Major Research Instrumentation Grant recently awarded to chemistry professors Robin Kinnel, George Shields and Ian Rosenstein with biology professor Herman Lehman. Characterized by chemists as "the most powerful tool available for elucidating the structure of molecules," NMRs are used to identify unknown substances, look at the arrangement of atoms within molecules and study how molecules interact in solution; Kinnel, for example, will use the instrument to study the bad-tasting and poisonous compounds that plants use to defend themselves from leaf-chewing herbivores. Only a few liberal arts colleges have NMRs as powerful as this one.
Some more major technology is on its way to the chemistry department -- an atomic force microscope. Capable of resolving particles as small as individual atoms, the instrument is being purchased through an NSF curriculum development grant to chemistry professor John LaGraff and will be a tool not just for LaGraff's research, but for students enrolled in a new nanotechnology course to be developed through the same grant.
Nanotechnology -- a hot news topic these days -- involves fabricating or manipulating structures that are vanishingly small (a nanometer is one one-billionth of a meter). At this scale, ordinary materials can show extraordinary properties of strength, chemical reactivity or electrical conductivity. "Quantum dots are a good example," says LaGraff; these nanoscale semiconducting powders, which "glow" different colors depending on their size, are the newest tool for labeling biological specimens.
Experts predict nanotechnology will have a profound impact on society. Hypothetically, it could produce "micromachines" the size of human cells to do some amazing tasks like precision drug delivery or cleaning up polluted water. Computer nanochips could store trillions of bits of information on a surface the size of a pinhead. LaGraff's own research looks at how biological molecules such as DNA and proteins can be integrated with microelectronic devices -- a line of inquiry that could lead to new tools for diagnosing disease.
Though promising, nanotechnology is also controversial, because nanoparticles penetrate living cells more readily than conventional particles with as-yet unknown consequences. Meanwhile, because nanotechnology deals with atoms and molecules rather than living organisms, this field hasn't been subject to much regulation or socio-political scrutiny. Because of the promise and the risks, the U.S. government has committed hundreds of millions of dollars to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, including significant funding to the NSF to educate the next generation of nanotechnologists. Starting this spring, some of them will enroll in LaGraff's new course, and starting in 2005, they'll be operating the atomic force microscope.
"I think one reason Hamilton faculty are so motivated to pursue these grants for major new technology is the support from the administration," notes Shields. The College matches all equipment procured via grants one-to-one; grants to new faculty members may be matched two-to-one. "This level of grant-matching is uncommon, I think," says LaGraff. Dean Elgren agrees that Hamilton's administration makes technology acquisition a priority. "We recognize that research takes state-of-the-art instrumentation -- that's why we've carved out part of the College budget to support faculty writing grants for equipment."
Traditionally, first-year students arrive on campus in late August, but this past summer, 13 new students showed up in June. They stashed their bags, rolled up their sleeves and headed for science labs to dive into research projects.
All Hamilton students with a concentration in science will conduct independent research as seniors. But they don't have to wait until their senior year to get hands-on experience, Shields notes. Hamilton's Summer Science Collaborative Research Program provides summertime support for students from first-year students to seniors.
The five-week research immersion experience for pre-first-year students is a new program funded by the National Science Foundation's STEP (Science Talent Expansion Program) and the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. The NSF grant earmarks support for groups that are traditionally underrepresented in science professions. The Dreyfus funding aims to increase the number of students who choose to major in science by offering them research experiences early in their college careers.
"First-year students don't just spend their time in the library or washing glassware," says Weldon, "they really do research." "I didn't expect to be working so independently," agrees Danielle Massee '07, who last summer studied how molecules bind to DNA -- work that may have applications in cancer treatment. Massee worked in Shields' lab along with three other pre-first-year students and four upperclass students. "The research experience refined my understanding of science and taught me that trial-and-error is essential," she says. "I also realized how much scientists rely on other scientists' work." When older and younger students work together, they get a taste of what grad school is like, adds Shields. "The new students learn from the older ones."
Upperclass students who are interested in summer research start by identifying a faculty member they'd like to work with and a project they'd like to work on. Then they apply for a summer research stipend -- usually $3,500 for 10 weeks starting in late May or early June. Some support comes directly from the College; other students are supported as research assistants on faculty grants. "Getting undergraduates in the lab -- that's the best way to learn science," says LaGraff. Last summer, 60 students were on campus, working with 23 science faculty members. In addition, several students built on their previous on-campus experiences by conducting research with pharmaceutical companies, national labs, research universities and medical schools.
Meanwhile, the number of students working on papers to be published in peer-reviewed journals or jetting off to present their work at professional meetings keeps growing. Throughout the sciences, 169 students appeared as co-authors or single authors on presentations at professional meetings, and 70 have appeared as co-authors on scientific journal publications in the past five years.
Another indication that Hamilton's commitment to student research gets results: In just the past three years, four Hamilton students have been named Goldwater scholars -- the first Goldwater students ever at the College. Shields notes, "That's a direct outcome of the fact we are paying more personal attention to our students and involving them in research earlier."
Since the summer of 2002, Matt Child '04 has been working with Assistant Professor of Biology Stephen Festin to investigate how alphafetoprotein (AFP) reduces tumors in breast cancer.
I'm taking breast cancer cells and treating them with estrogen," the biochemistry major explained. I can then isolate the RNA from the cells and use a cDNA microarray. This allows me to see what genes are being activated and deactivated in cancer cells exposed to estrogen."
Estrogen is of interest because it has been shown to be necessary for the growth of certain types of breast cancer and because alphafetoprotein has been shown to block the effects of estrogen in some situations. "Assuming that my research moves along nicely, I'll move on to seeing what genes are activated by AFP," Child added. "My research is too preliminary to give results at this stage, but other laboratories have shown that estrogen regulates genes important for cell growth and survival, helping cancer cells to thrive."
By showing exactly what happens in a cell treated with AFP, Child's research could eventually lead to new cancer treatments. But that's far in the future. In the short run, he is working to establish a protocol for using microarray techniques, a powerful method with many applications, at Hamilton. Child has been impressed with the opportunities he'd had at Hamilton to not only conduct research, but contribute to cuttin gedge scientific exploration. And he's learned all that comes with being a scientist -- "the excitement and tedium, and the victories and heartbreaks of day-to-day research in the laboratory." -- experience that will help him when he pursues a Ph.D. in biomedical science and medical research.
Considered the nation's top undergraduate award in the sciences, Goldwater scholarships are awarded on the basis of both academic merit and "demonstrated research aptitude." "If you don't get to do research, it's hard to demonstrate an aptitude for it," Shields points out. All four Hamilton winners already had research experience when they applied for the scholarships and two had already published papers in scientific journals.
Mary Bernadine Dias '98 says hands-on instruction and the chance to do research at Hamilton have had "revolutionary" consequences in her life. When she first arrived on campus, Dias barely knew how to turn on a computer. Yet she enrolled in physics professor Brian Collett's Electronics and Computing class, which, Collett explains, is "about how stuff works -- everyday stuff, like electronic devices." The lesson plan for each class is straightforward. "First the students read about how things should work," says Collett. "Then they sit down and check it out for themselves."
"Definitely one of the fun things about the class was the hands-on experience," Dias recalls. "That was my first exposure to robotics, and I found it quite fascinating." For her class project, she programmed a robotic arm to pick up a cup of water. That led to her senior project: designing and building an "intelligent" robot with cameras for eyes and wheels for legs.
"To learn about the cameras I visited a Hamilton alum (Andrew Miller '95) at Columbia University," says Dias. "He introduced me to his advisor, who asked about my project and said, 'You must go to grad school in robotics!' I came back to campus and told my advisor, 'Isn't that funny? -- me getting a Ph.D. in robotics?' And he said, 'Not at all,' and handed me a bunch of grad school applications to fill out!"
For the past four years, Dias has been working on a Ph.D. in robotics at Carnegie Mellon University. There, she's part of a team of NASA-funded researchers working to develop robots that collaborate in groups; the ultimate goal is to put a team of research robots on Mars, but Dias has her eyes on another goal -- a career where she can use computers and technology for positive social change in developing nations.
Dias credits her acceptance at several prestigious grad schools to her solid research experience at Hamilton. "In science there's a kind of bias against students who apply to grad schools from liberal arts colleges," she notes. "So it's impressive that Hamilton sees so many of its students accepted to grad school. It's partly because of the way teaching is structured, but it's also the way students are encouraged to do research."
Biology's Festin agrees. "I believe Hamilton students have an advantage over other students," he says. "They are exposed to grad-level resources at an undergraduate institution. If they decide to go on to grad school, they are very well-prepared."
At the same time, Dias appreciates Hamilton's identity as a liberal arts institution. "Having gone through that curriculum, I find myself much stronger in communication skills -- writing papers, presentations, even interacting with others -- than students who had a straight science education," she says.
Hamilton's new Science Center is on budget and on schedule. The stairs are in, most of the roof is on, and on the north side of the building, huge plate-glass windows are in place. Inside, carpenters are hammering away, building casements and cabinets from sustainable hardwoods. The 622 tons of Pennsylvania limestone needed to finish the building's exterior are on order.
It's obvious that this physical structure is built on a strong foundation. Undetectable via Webcam, but just as strong, is the building's philosophical foundation: that science exists not as a body of facts to be transferred from professor to student, but as a dialogue and a mutual experience of discovery. Reflecting back on his own experiences in college science classes, Weldon revels in the changes at Hamilton. "Science is, by its very nature, hands-on and collaborative," he says. "By teaching science this way, with hands-on labs and opportunities for research, we prepare first-rate scientists. What's more, we prepare first-rate citizens -- people who understand how science impacts everyday life."
Cynthia Berger has worked as a lab instructor for large-enrollment first-year biology classes. She is currently a science writer living in central Pennsylvania.