Tag: Howard Hughes Medical Institute

Reimagined classroom brings new energy, creativity to intro science classes

Nicole Legman, a sophomore, Ryan Johnson, a senior, and Haleigh Andrews, a first-year, work with other students at their table during an Introduction to Physics class in the remodeled Science Learning Commons in Youngchild Hall. (Photos by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Stefan Debbert will tell you he got a little emotional when he addressed the introductory chemistry class on the first day of Fall Term.

Part of that might have been tied to the emotions of standing in front of a classroom full of students for the first time since the pandemic had rerouted lives a year and half earlier. But mostly, he said, it was about the room he was standing in.

For three years, Debbert, an associate professor of chemistry, and his science colleagues have worked with architects to reimagine how a science lecture hall could and should work. More specifically, how Room 121 in Youngchild Hall could be transformed from an outdated, tiered lecture hall with 150-plus forward-facing seats into an interactive classroom divided into a dozen tables, each seating four to six students and each equipped with technology to keep every student engaged and involved, be it a lecture or a lab. Work on the classroom project was completed just as Fall Term arrived in September.

“I kind of had to collect myself a little bit,” Debbert said of that first day. “It was a great moment.”

Debbert played a lead role in bringing the transformation of the classroom—now called the Science Learning Commons—to fruition. Lawrence donors funded the renovation, part of the successful Be the Light! campaign that came to a close at the end of 2020. Preparations for how to best utilize the remodeled space was supported by a $1 million grant to Lawrence University from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) through the Science Education Program to implement its Inclusive Excellence Initiative. It’s aimed at encouraging colleges and universities to explore new ways to bring underrepresented students into the sciences.

An important piece of Lawrence’s strategy has been in reimagining this lecture hall, which is now home to intro courses and a smattering of upper-level courses across the sciences. By creating a more interactive and inclusive environment, the science faculty are hoping to spur the imagination and showcase the collaborative beauty of the sciences, all catered to students who are just beginning their college journeys.

Take a 360 tour of the Science Learning Commons

Students work in groups at individual pods in the Science Learning Commons, located in Room 121 in Youngchild Hall.

First-year students often come in wide-eyed, not sure what to expect, Debbert said. If that intro class in physics or chemistry or biology doesn’t light a fire, they may never come back. For students from historically underrepresented backgrounds, research has shown that that’s often been the case.

“Having a situation like this where we can emphasize the social aspect of science is so important,” Debbert said. “Part of being a scientist is talking to other people and working together, putting stuff on the board, being wrong. It’s amazing how much of that attitude and emotional work we do in these science courses, but that’s a big part of the job.”

STEM-to-Ph.D. rankings, pedagogy changes build excitement in the sciences

Any student hoping to sleepwalk through an intro science class in the back of a sterile lecture hall may be a bit surprised. But the science faculty are betting that in the end it’ll be a welcome surprise.

 “We’re pushing some of our students out of their comfort zones intentionally,” Debbert said.

The room is now equipped with two massive projector screens, allowing the professor to use them for different purposes simultaneously. Each of the student tables have their own screens, connected to the big screens up front. Microphones at each table allow for easy interaction across the room. Document cameras give faculty new options for sharing materials. David Berk, director of instructional technology, has led the implementation of the equipment and guided faculty through a learning curve in how to utilize it.

“It’s like flying an airplane up there,” Beth De Stasio, the Raymond H. Herzog Professor of Science and professor of biology, said with a laugh. “There are a lot of buttons to push. The technology is amazing.”

Megan Pickett, associate professor of physics, and Margaret Koker, assistant professor of physics, tap into new technologies in the Science Learning Commons as they teach Introduction to Physics.

Intro science classes are among the largest classes at Lawrence. This Fall Term, Introduction to Chemistry has 50 students. Introduction to Physics is closer to 70. The reconfigured Science Learning Commons can seat about 75 students if needed.

Faculty have long infused interactive elements into those intro classes. But doing so in a lecture hall not equipped for that interaction was often awkward or inefficient, De Stasio said.

Now the interaction is happening organically. It can be seen at the individual tables. No one is working solo. Discussions and debates are robust, and the ability for the professor to connect with each group is seamless.

“There’s this sharing that’s happening,” De Stasio said. “But what’s really important about that is you’re getting each individual student, as much as possible, to think during class and not be a passive receiver of knowledge, but rather be a creator of understanding. That’s when learning is deeper, when it’s something you’ve wrestled with yourself and not just been told. That is what scientists do.”

De Stasio said lessons learned during the four terms of distance learning are finding their way into how the Science Learning Commons is being used. The individual table with the built-in technology is the in-person version of Zoom’s breakout room, she said.

“In terms of inclusion, I think it’s a huge step forward,” De Stasio said. “We can have students in groups, we easily monitor who is talking, who’s not; is anyone being left out? It becomes obvious right away.”

Tracking student progress

Junior Difei Jiang collaborates with sophomore Connor Phelps during an Introduction to Physics class session.

How the students learn in this new environment will be tracked and studied. The HHMI grant includes follow-up, analyzing grade gaps and performance of underrepresented minority students and first-generation college students, studying whether students feel welcomed or engaged in those classes, whether they then aspire to take higher level STEM courses.

In other words, this is just the start, Debbert said.

“We’re not posting the mission accomplished banner and saying we’re done,” he said. “We’re tracking everything we can think of.”

Alex Rothstein, a senior biology and music performance double major, took two courses this term in the Science Learning Commons—one was an upper-level biochemistry course, the other an Introduction to Physics course that had more than 70 students.  

“Physics was the largest class on campus this term, but the classroom didn’t make it feel like that,” he said.

The classroom setup is going to pay dividends for years to come because it changes the dynamics of those early science courses, which in the past could often be intimidating, Rothstein said.

“Being able to work in small pods enhanced my experience this term, as it started to feel like a small group versus a class of roughly 70,” he said. “Overall, I feel like this classroom enhances students’ abilities to work together creatively without intimidation, which I feel is important for happiness and success in the sciences.”

The classroom, designed with a hexagon motif that makes Debbert smile, is in use almost constantly. When classes aren’t in session, students are encouraged to use it for group study sessions or tutoring.

“We call it a Science Learning Commons because we want this to be a gathering place,” Debbert said. “We ask these students to work together during class and hopefully that carries over and they’ll work together outside of class.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

STEM-to-Ph.D. rankings, pedagogy changes build excitement in the sciences

Brianna Wilson '21 (left) looks at a fish while teaching assistant No'eau Simeona '20 stands beside her and collaborates on a lab project for Morphogenesis of the Vertebrates.
Brianna Wilson ’21 (left), a biology major, works with teaching assistant No’eau Simeona ’20, in a Morphogenesis of the Vertebrates lab at Lawrence. Wilson is charting a course she hopes will take her to graduate school and an eventual Ph.D. (Photos by Danny Damiani)

Story by Ed Berthiaume / Communications

Caitlin White Magel ’09 isn’t surprised that Lawrence University is showing up on national rankings of schools whose science graduates have most consistently taken a STEM-to-Ph.D. path.

As she closes in on her doctorate at Oregon State University, Magel points to guidance during her sophomore year at Lawrence that set her on the road to being a marine scientist.

She came into Lawrence as an environmental studies major, and early interactions with her advisor, geosciences professor Marcia Bjornerud, further locked in her desire to study human impacts on natural ecosystems. But, she quickly learned, there were more options to consider.

“I was encouraged by other science faculty — and my scientist father — to consider the option of a double major in order to have disciplinary depth in a particular field while still being able to explore broader issues through the environmental studies classes,” Magel said. “By the end of my sophomore year, I declared a second major in biology.”

That led to participation in the LU Marine Program (LUMP), jump-starting what would become a deep interest in marine ecology and putting her on a path toward her Ph.D.

She’s not alone in that experience. The number of Lawrence students earning degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields on their way to successful completion of doctoral degrees places Lawrence in select company, according to a new report from the Council for Independent Colleges (CIC). In a national ranking that measures the percentage of a school’s STEM graduates from 2007 to 2016 who eventually earned a Ph.D., Lawrence comes in at No. 17, sandwiched between Harvard at 16 and Princeton at 18. It is a jump of 11 spots from the previous rankings, released in 2013. When the new rankings are broken down to women only, Lawrence comes in at No. 29. The CIC used National Center for Education statistics and National Science Foundation datasets that included public and private schools.

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Those rankings aren’t by happenstance. They speak to the deep commitment Lawrence has made in the STEM fields, and the power that comes with small class sizes and the opportunity to do hands-on research in the sciences as an undergraduate in a smaller, liberal arts setting, said Stefan Debbert, associate professor of chemistry.

“The rankings are a sign that we are doing something right, that we are getting students invested enough in the sciences that they are considering future study,” he said. “But it’s also a challenge to us to make sure we’re sending them to graduate school well prepared. The goal isn’t just to get students to enter graduate school. The goal is, if that’s the correct choice for them, to have them in a position to succeed.”

Elizabeth Ann De Stasio writes on a whiteboard as she teaches Integrative Biology: Cells to Organisms at Lawrence.
Elizabeth Ann De Stasio, the Raymond H. Herzog Professor of Science and professor of biology at Lawrence University, teaches Integrative Biology: Cells to Organisms.

A new approach

There is still much work to be done. Lawrence doesn’t show up on the CIC’s STEM-to-Ph.D. rankings when it measures African American or Latino graduates. The school’s numbers aren’t large enough to qualify.

That’s an issue that’s being addressed head on by Lawrence administrators and faculty across the sciences.

Debbert is leading an initiative to restructure how introductory-level science courses are taught. Lawrence was one of 33 schools selected last year to receive a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to implement its Inclusive Excellence Initiative via its Science Education Program. Another 24 schools were selected the year prior, part of HHMI’s push to reimagine science education to better engage students from all backgrounds.

Debbert is working with other science faculty at Lawrence to reshape how subjects are introduced and explored, how classrooms are structured, and how faculty interact with students. It puts more emphasis on the front-end science courses in hopes it’ll keep more students — and a greater diversity of students — in the sciences for the long haul.

“HHMI is motivated to help America fix its STEM pipeline problems,” Debbert said. “We have lots of students come into college thinking they want to major in the sciences, and we lose a lot of those students. HHMI is really pushing us to think about why we lose those students. Sometimes we lose them because we’re just not engaging with them enough. Students look around a giant science classroom and they think, ‘I don’t see people who look like me’ or ‘I don’t see myself as fitting in this environment.’ And then we lose them.”

Much of the HHMI work over the past year has involved training sessions with faculty and the redesigning of curriculum for introductory science courses, all with a focus on inclusive pedagogy. The revamped courses will be rolled out over the next two years.

There’s also a desire to retool a large lecture hall in Youngchild Hall to create a more modern science space, with the traditional tiered seating replaced with a dozen or so tables equipped with interactive technology. It would cater to the intro classes and serve as a launch point for science learning. Creating what Debbert calls a “science commons,” with a welcoming environment, is a big part of the new approach. Additional fundraising is being sought to make that happen, hopefully with construction beginning no later than summer, said Amy Kester, director of corporate, foundation, and sponsored research support. The goal is to have the room ready for the 2020-21 academic year.

Stefan Debbert folds his arms as he poses for a portrait on the Lawrence campus.
Stefan Debbert on efforts to engage with science students early on: “We are working with them, getting to know what part of science motivates them.”

Building on success

The changes at the intro class level will build on the successes Lawrence has had elsewhere in the sciences. The “rallying cry,” Debbert said, is to get students excited about and engaged with science in those early classes so they stay with it long enough to see the possibilities that come with deeper, more specific study in the higher-level courses, be it in biology, chemistry, physics or related subjects.

Part of that approach is giving students opportunities to do significant research, sometimes as early as freshman year. Students in the sciences at Lawrence are often doing research that students at other schools might not see until grad school.

“We have these students do research with us,” Debbert said. “So, they’re not just sitting in the back of a giant lecture hall falling asleep while someone talks at them. We are working with them, getting to know what part of science motivates them. We’re getting to know how they feel they can contribute, not just to their scientific field but to the world at large.

“I think that’s what drives a lot of our students to pursue graduate school. This idea that you really can have a massive impact in science.”

Lawrence, of course, has a much smaller enrollment than many of the public and private schools in the CIC rankings. Lawrence, with a student body of about 1,500, might graduate 10 to 12 chemistry majors, another 10 to 12 physics majors, and about 40 biology majors in a given year. Those smaller numbers, and the school’s 8-to-1 students to faculty ratio, help make the hands-on approach in the sciences possible.

That approach hooked Brianna Wilson ’21, a third-year biology major from Kenosha who wants to pursue a Ph.D. so she can eventually teach biology at the college level. An intro biology course during her freshman year opened her eyes to that possibility.

“The last five weeks of the term you design your own experiment with the professor,” Wilson said. “I was taken aback by that, that they’d throw us into a lab and let us design our own experiment. … I thought I wouldn’t be able to get a chance to do that until … I went to graduate school. That was pretty memorable.”

Path to a Ph.D.

Mug of Caitlin White Magel.
Caitlin White Magel ’09

Wilson is now envisioning a path not unlike that of Magel and other Lawrence grads working their way toward doctoral degrees.

For Magel, it was an opportunity to take part in LUMP that opened her to a new world. The Lawrence program provides a hands-on undergraduate experience in marine biology, including a two-week field study of a Caribbean island, the study of coral and fish biodiversity, and the exploration of reef ecosystems.

“It was an incredible experience,” Magel said. “It was my first scientific experience in marine ecosystems, and also my first experience doing field-based research.”

Then, following her junior year, Magel garnered a summer internship with the NSF Research Experience for Undergraduates at Oregon State’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon. That built on what she had taken from the LUMP experience.

After graduating from Lawrence, she would return to Newport for a two-year research assistant position with the EPA’s Pacific Coastal Ecology Branch, studying coastal salt marshes. That led her to her doctoral program focused on coastal marine ecology.

“Undoubtedly, the support and encouragement of many of my Lawrence professors, especially Marcia Bjornerud, Bart De Stasio, and Jodi Sedlock, helped put me on a path to success in graduate school,” Magel said.

That’s music to Debbert’s ears. The ongoing connection between student and faculty is a key selling point in a liberal arts education, the sciences included. That starts early at Lawrence and continues post-graduation.

“We really try to help students find out what it’s like to be a researcher,” Debbert said of the undergraduate work. “Being a scientist isn’t just sitting in a lecture hall and taking tests. Real science is about being curious and being OK with not knowing something and then going out and figuring it out. That’s what we really try to stress to our students.

“Yes, we’re going to teach the quantitative skills and the math and how to use the instruments, but we also want to make sure we’re teaching them how to communicate with each other, how to work with people who might not be very similar to you, how to come up with a research question, how to fail, and how to succeed after that.”

No one on the faculty is focusing on the STEM-to-Ph.D. rankings, Debbert said. The rankings are nice because they remind people that there is some serious science happening in the halls of liberal arts colleges, Lawrence included, but they don’t change a professor’s classroom approach or a student’s experience.

“Sometimes people seem surprised that you can have an actual honest-to-goodness real laboratory experience at a small school,” Debbert said. “If anything, these rankings show people that, yes, we do real science at Lawrence, and we care about it and we care about having our students learn how to be researchers, independent researchers.

“To us, that’s the main thing. It helps us communicate our story, and the story for liberal arts schools in general, which is, send us your scientists and we can help them grow in that way.”

Ed Berthiaume is director of public information at Lawrence University. Email: ed.c.berthiaume@lawrence.edu

Lawrence University receives $1 million Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant to pursue inclusive excellence in the sciences

Stefan Debbert calls it a “transformational” approach to science education at Lawrence University.

The chemistry professor will direct a new initiative designed to significantly change the way Lawrence teaches many of its introductory natural science courses.

Stefan Debbert
Stefan Debbert

Lawrence was one of 33 schools in the country selected for a $1 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to implement its Inclusive Excellence Initiative. The program’s aim is to catalyze schools’ efforts to engage science students of all backgrounds and identities. Lawrence and the other 32 schools selected for the program this year join 24 schools that were chosen in 2017.

“This initiative is about encouraging colleges and universities to change the way they do business — to become institutions with a significantly greater capacity for inclusion of all students, especially those from nontraditional backgrounds,” said HHMI President Erin O’Shea in announcing the grants.

“The commitment to inclusion is a signal feature of a Lawrence education,” said Catherine Gunther Kodat, provost and dean of the faculty. “Last year, our efforts to more fully incorporate inclusive pedagogies in the humanities received a great boost through funding from the Mellon Foundation. This new grant makes it possible for us to deepen and expand this commitment into our instruction in the sciences, as well. HHMI is one of the nation’s most prestigious science philanthropies. Their support of our program is a tremendous vote of confidence in the skill, dedication, and passion of our faculty.”

As its name implies, the program is targeting “the New Majority” — underrepresented minority, first generation and low-income students. Recent efforts on Lawrence’s part have significantly increased its number of New Majority students, leading to a re-examination of how its policies and resources support those students.

“It’s called the Inclusive Excellence Initiative because data suggest some groups are being excluded,” said Debbert, associate professor of chemistry and Lawrence’s HHMI project director. “We want to make sure students stay in our science ‘pipeline.’ To do that, we’re looking at a fundamental shift in how we teach.

“Our goal is to create a natural science community that unreservedly welcomes, fully embraces, thoughtfully engages and effectively teaches all students of all identities—from their very first class through graduation,” Debbert added. “Lawrence’s natural science division intends to lead the university as we place inclusive excellence at the root of our curricula, our mindsets and our shared mission.”

Lawrence will use the grant, which will be allocated over five years, to “fundamentally change” the way each of its large introductory courses in biology, chemistry and physics are taught.

“We’re going to take them out of the big lecture hall model and go to a more active learning approach where students are working in small groups around a table, talking with each other and working with each other instead of just passively absorbing a long lecture,” said Debbert. “We’re also going to enhance our student’s hands-on learning opportunities by better integrating our labs with our classroom work.”

Lawrence biologist Elizabeth De Stasio, whose own position at Lawrence was created originally in 1992 by a $500,000 grant from HHMI, says that as a result of this work, “Our students are going to be learning in a new way. They are going to carry that to their other classes and, we hope, their social spaces, resulting in a more inclusive culture at Lawrence, not just in the introductory science classes.”

“The commitment to inclusion is a signal feature of a Lawrence education. HHMI is one of the nation’s most prestigious science philanthropies. Their support of our program is a tremendous vote of confidence in the skill, dedication, and passion of our faculty.”
— Catherine Gunther Kodat, provost and dean of the faculty

Lawrence’s first step in the initiative will be transforming a large, tiered lecture hall in Youngchild Hall into a “science commons” with small group tables and built-in technology so students can share work with each other more easily.

“Our hope is to make our introductory science courses a more welcoming and engaging place, so students won’t feel left out or excluded because of where they’re coming from, what they look like or how they identify,” said Debbert. “We’ll be able to say to all students, ‘We can help you succeed.’”

Over the next five years, Lawrence will add visiting faculty members who specialize in modern science pedagogy for two-year appointments. These positions will be created in the biology, chemistry and physics departments.

“These ‘STEM Pedagogy Fellows,’ as we plan to call them, won’t just be scientists, they will have extensive experience in modern pedagogy and classroom revision,” said Debbert. “They will be people whose Ph.D.s essentially are in science teaching, so they will help us in many ways.”

Biology professor Beth De Stasio in classroom with students
Professor of Biology Beth De Stasio (right) has tested some of the inclusive education practices in her genetics class that Lawrence will incorporate more broadly through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute grant.

To further support students in these introductory science courses, Lawrence will build on a successful program in their introductory biology curriculum by developing and implementing peer-led learning groups for introductory courses in chemistry and physics. These groups will help students develop skills and strategies for success in coursework, and will lead to more connections and cohort-building among students and a more inclusive learning environment for all students, particular those from underrepresented groups.

“Diverse groups are shown by research to make better decisions; there is less group-think if you are in a group with diversity on any level,” said De Stasio, the Raymond H. Herzog Professor of Science and professor of biology. “We’re trying to have students realize working in diverse groups of any kind is a huge plus.”

In addition to these programs, Lawrence will bring outside speakers to campus to conduct seminars for the faculty and staff with a focus on how to teach more inclusively. Additional personnel will be added to the office of research administration to gather more data to assess project progress during the grant period.

During the two rounds of selection in 2017 and 2018, HHMI received applications from 594 schools of which 140 were invited to submit proposals for plans to develop more inclusive environments for their students.

“For years, the higher education system has focused on treating symptoms instead of addressing root causes,” said HHMI Program Officer Susan Musante. “With the Inclusive Excellence initiative, HHMI is asking institutions to identify how they are standing in the way of success for certain groups of students and then find ways to change.”

About Lawrence University
Founded in 1847, Lawrence University uniquely integrates a college of liberal arts and sciences with a nationally recognized conservatory of music, both devoted exclusively to undergraduate education. It was selected for inclusion in the book “Colleges That Change Lives: 40 Schools That Will Change the Way You Think About College.”  Engaged learning, the development of multiple interests and community outreach are central to the Lawrence experience. Lawrence draws its 1,500 students from nearly every state and more than 50 countries.