The first class of Citizen Scientists: Student perspective

By April 5th, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Comment

Dr. Stephanie Stockwell helps a student learn about the structure of viruses (i.e., their protein coat) through an origami activity.

Dr. Stephanie Stockwell helps a student learn about the structure of viruses (i.e., their protein coat) through an origami activity.

A few weeks back, I had an opportunity to speak with faculty at Bard College about the school’s new Citizen Science program. This week, I’ve got the inside scoop from the freshmen who took part in the intensive three-week course.

Four students in Dr. Kate Seip’s section of the course were kind enough to share some of their experiences via email. These students cited the professors’ emphasis on practical, real-world application of science knowledge, and their ability to foster in-class discussion as being instrumental for helping them understand the importance of these issues.

Cindy, a budding psychology/neuroscience major, said that Seip and the Citizen Science course have solidified her interest in neuroscience. Though she initially had reservations about spending three more weeks at Bard College during the winter, Cindy maintained an open mind. Indeed, the lack of specific course credit (or grades) seemed to “foster students’ independent quest for knowledge regarding infectious disease and science as a whole.” Her favorite aspect of the course was the laboratory rotation in which students extracted DNA, collected and grew bacteria, and learned about bacteria resistance. Getting up at 8:30am wasn’t even so bad (icy pathways and skin-cracking wind notwithstanding!).

Johannah, a psychology major and cognitive science minor, particularly enjoyed hearing about Seip’s background and why she chose to pursue scientific study. Along with other students, Johannah participated in outreach efforts in local elementary schools as part of the civic engagement portion of the course. In one outreach event, she and others made oobleck with the students.

James, a biology major, thought that the Citizen Science program included “an appropriate balance of lab work, computer modeling, and lectures/information sessions.” He felt that he “lucked out” by being assigned to Seip’s class, as she was “dedicated to the subject material and the program, while being relatively laid back.”

Though James felt that the Citizen Science course could have challenged the students a bit more, he found the lab work was particularly exiting because it was “the most interactive and hands-on part of the program, and it was just an all around fun experience.”

“[Dr. Seip] was dedicated to and passionate about her field, [which] inspired the rest of us to dedicate ourselves to the program. None of the material we studied was dry or boring, and it was easy to see the real-world significance in what we read,” James said.

Bard College's first class of Citizen Scientists completed a three week program.

Bard College's first class of Citizen Scientists completed a three week program.

Michelle, currently planning to major in human rights, explained that she didn’t know much about citizen science before the course and wasn’t sure what to expect.

“We were given a basic understanding of what a virus does and how it works, so there certainly was some biology involved, but the course was entirely geared towards present-day (or mostly present-day) scientific issues,” Michelle said. “We learned about computer modeling, and discussed the potential benefits of using an oil-consuming bacteria in the Gulf. Then, we watched a movie (and several videos) on vaccines, and the autism controversy, and discussed them in class.”

Throughout the course, professors dealt with practical issues, such as where to obtain trustworthy science information and how to find evidence supporting (or refuting) claims.

“In general, [the program] gave us the knowledge and resources we needed to be better consumers of scientific information. Personally, I am now able to read scientific articles (from the newspaper or elsewhere) that I might not have understood before,” Michelle said.

During the computer modeling rotation, Dr. Seip noticed that the students’ interest was dwindling. To combat fatigue, Seip performed an in-class “intervention” by asking the class for immediate feedback on the course.

“With this information, a metamorphosis occurred. We branched on to topics relating to how neurons and neurotransmitters perform their functions, biomedical ethics, and…drug dependence, all while successfully covering the course outlines,” Cindy said.

Cindy hopes that future classes will keep an open mind as she did and to not be afraid to suggest changes to help the program grow as seamlessly as possible.

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