As we mentioned in an earlier post, Bard College recently created an intensive three-week program in citizen science to be taken by all freshmen each January. I was able to discuss the tremendously successful inaugural session with one of the program’s instructors, Dr. Kate Seip.
Seip, a postdoctoral researcher at The Rockefeller University, had participated in other science outreach initiatives during graduate school, and jumped at the opportunity to teach freshmen at Bard. Seip was excited to share her love of science with students from varied majors, in large part because “science is inherently interesting – it taps into a curiosity that I think we all have about why the natural world works in the ways that it does.”
Several instructors taught the group of approximately 450 incoming freshman during the three week course. Seip thoroughly enjoyed the experience of teaching in an “incredibly rich environment of like-minded scientists who prioritized rigorous undergraduate education, enjoyed mentorship and one-on-one interactions with students, and valued science literacy.”
The theme of this year’s Citizen Science program was infectious disease. Each topic of the course required students to learn a few science basics, and then house those ideas in the context of a complex society and world. Seip herself was responsible for teaching one section of 20 freshmen students who hailed from diverse majors from photography to physics. She spent 4-6 hours per day with her group, doing everything from wet-lab bench work to computer modeling to analyzing case studies and discussing biomedical ethics.
She was pleased with the enthusiasm with which the students embraced the coursework, noting that “most of them were not only eager to plate bacterial cultures but also to discuss the real-life implications and applications of bench research, which they hadn’t done in their prior science courses.”
Throughout the coursework, Seip explained that the instructors continually revisited the core themes of the program, in particular the scientific method. Students focused on each step: making observations, forming hypotheses, analyzing and interpreting data, and figuring out how to best present the data to a particular audience.
“One of the primary goals of the program was to reduce students’ trepidation about approaching and answering those types of questions. I tried to achieve this in my own class by fostering a positive and supportive environment in which students would feel empowered to answer these questions in our classroom and, more importantly, along whatever paths that they would be taking in their lives,” Seip said.
She explained that the Citizen Science program at Bard is “designed to bridge a range of scientific questions that would appeal to different subsets of students in different ways.”
When discussing issues regarding the control of infectious disease, for example, one student asked his peers how they might weigh the socioeconomic benefits of disease epidemics differently in a developed versus an underdeveloped nation.
“His comment sparked a very interesting class discussion that ended up tying together a number of themes that we’d covered in earlier parts of the course in unique ways. It was a treat for me, as well, as those discussions helped remind me of the broader perspectives that I strive to maintain as a research scientist,” Seip said.
Outside of the classroom, both students and faculty took part in outreach opportunities in the wider community. During one such excursion, Seip joined a group of Bard students and Citizen Science faculty that helped host an evening science program at a local elementary school.
“The kids got to make slime and dig for fossils and play with lumpy liquids and squishy solids. We all ended up covered with Borax solution and glitter, and I think the kids had a good time too (!),” Seip said.
The course was rewarding, but also had its challenges. Although the students engaged themselves readily, Seip said that it was sometimes challenging for the instructors to integrate many perspectives into a whole. The other big challenge, she mentioned, was getting enough sleep while staying in the freshman dorms.