Smith College  –  What Comes Next in Science Education

During the past two decades, Smith College has been transforming its curriculum and facilities to move science education from “cook book” instruction to experiential, problem-based learning. HHMI grants over the last 20 years have been critical in helping Smith create a science education philosophy that actively engages students in the excitement of scientific inquiry, says Tom Litwin, director of Smith’s Clark Science Center and program director for its HHMI grant.But just as important, the HHMI grants have provided inspiration for the faculty to evaluate their own teaching and research, “The grants have created an environment where the faculty no longer separate their teaching and research activities,” Litwin says. With the award of its fifth HHMI grant, this time for $1.3 million, Smith will build on the foundations that their partnership with HHMI has enabled them to create. Litwin says this continuity is at the core of Smith’s success in developing new models for undergraduate science education.

One such model is the creation of resource centers at Smith for student-faculty research built around research questions, rather than traditional departmental structures. “Scientific inquiry has, by necessity, become increasingly interdisciplinary and our teaching environment needs to reflect this,” Litwin says. A previous HHMI grant created a center for molecular biology and another for microscopy and imaging. Each was equipped with state-of-the-art instruments and a fulltime technical instructor. Experience has shown that undergraduates working with faculty mentors can explore some of the most interesting research questions of the day—if they have the necessary tools and encouragement. These centers, along with a proteomics center paid for by the National Science Foundation, are constantly in use by more than 40 faculty members, representing 6 departments and over 200 undergraduates. The new HHMI grant will upgrade the existing centers and add two more. One will focus on molecular structural analysis, with equipment for nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy.

The school will take a different approach with its other new center, which will be devoted to science outreach. An on-site K-12 science teaching specialist will provide the latest educational and technical support for students involved in Smith’s science education efforts. For example, students already run a program on teen health issues with the Northampton city schools. The new science outreach center will also take a leading role in Smith’s on-campus summer programs for science teachers.

From previous experience, Smith has also learned that a diverse student body doesn’t come easily. Students in Smith’s new diversity program will now start the summer before college with a science-focused orientation. “We found we needed to start talking with, and supporting students earlier in the college entry process,” Litwin says of earlier programs targeting women from groups underrepresented in the sciences or families where neither parent has a bachelor’s degree. Besides a summer’s head start, the HHMI grant will give the students a ready-made social network of faculty and student mentors, continuing academic support, and an early push toward the research lab. An assessment initiative working in parallel with the program will help the faculty understand what is working, and how best to implement improvements.

Program Component Documents

Student Research

Academic Assessment