Story posted August 29, 2006
At a time when most incoming Bowdoin students were squeezing out the last week of summer, 18 first-years were hitting campus early. They were part of the Bowdoin Science Experience (BSE), a brand-new program of academic orientation designed to encourage and support students in science and math.
"We're trying to give new students who have expressed an interest in those fields hands-on experience and focused support to help them live up to their full potential," says BSE co-leader Patsy Dickinson, chair of neuroscience. "We want to create a community so our students can share ideas, form study groups, and use all the many College resources available to them."
The program immersed small teams of students in five labs spread across disciplines. They also met with staff from the Baldwin Center, Hatch Science Library, Coastal Studies Center, and the Writing Project. Upper-class science mentors showed them the ropes — orienting them around the Quad, inside the dorms, and through the ins-and-out of choosing classes.
Most importantly, said participants, they had extended, relaxed time with Bowdoin science and math faculty.
"Even though this was like a pre-pre-orientation to the whole school I love the fact that I already know so many of the faculty and I have gotten to talk to them one-to-one," said Copley Huston Smith '10, from New Bedford, Mass. "Coming to college it's a big thing getting to know everybody.
"When I applied to schools I knew that Bowdoin had a good science program," she added, "So I like getting a better idea of what is offered in the sciences. I love anatomy, but I'm thinking I might want to try some classes that I wasn't thinking about at all before. Neuroscience, maybe computer science."
Too often, said Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Seth Ramus, students with interest and strength in math and science become discouraged — particularly during their first year, when they are adapting to a new academic and social environment.
"They need to understand the resources, the mentors, the faculty who are available to them," said Ramus, who designed and co-led BSE with Dickinson. "Typically, new students don't use these resources until after there is a problem.
“I chose to do this program because I like science, but I have gained so much more. We’ve got knowledge of everything on campus so when school starts we are going to know where everything is. There are so many huge support systems that I never knew existed, and they did a really good job of matching my roommate and me together. We both like physics, so if I ever have questions, he’s right here. Honestly, every day after lecture, we leave feeling that we have a leg up.”
— Hassan Muhammad ’10
"Encouraging students into the sciences is a national issue," Ramus added. "Overall, we do not have enough students in the science and math pipelines to meet our needs and compete globally. We are importing many of our scientists from overseas. And most poorly represented are minorities, women, and first-generation college students; we hope particularly to reach out to these groups."
The camaraderie among the group was palpable, after only just a few days. In Moulton Union, where they gathered for meals, the entire group regularly sat at one long table.
"One of the mentors walked in and she was like, 'Wow! Look at this table. It's massive,'" laughed Huston Smith. "I didn't realize how close all the kids would get. Everyone is really bonding. It's good going to orientation already knowing people. And the mentors have been awesome — it's nice to know some upperclassmen and be able to talk to them and find out about classes. I would like to be a mentor myself."
BSE faculty participants created lab curricula that introduced basic lab skills and posed discipline-specific challenges. Assistant Professor of Computer Science Stephen Majercik worked intensively with three students, none of whom had ever worked before with AIBO robot dogs. By the end of two days together, they were learning how to program them for soccer competition.
In a chemistry lab designed by chemistry professors Beth Stemmler and Dharni Vasudevan, students were asked to solve a recent "crime" in Brunswick, analyzing physical evidence taken from the crime scene.
"I think I did such a good job of describing the crime that for the first two minutes they thought it was real," laughed Vasudevan." The students then learned basic lab techniques for approaching the evidence before deciding together how to proceed.
"They worked really well as a team," noted Stemmler. "They worked equally and gave each other space. They are all science students, so I think they were very enthusiastic about the findings."
Not coincidentally, BSE participants were matched in labs with the faculty members who would become their first-year advisors. At the completion of their lab time, they met individually with them to begin mapping out their first-year experience.
"Hey, enough about computers," quipped Majercik, meeting up for his one-on-one with BSE participant Hassan Muhammad '10, a student from Cincinnati. "Let's talk about music. I hear you're a jazz pianist."
"Yeah," replied Muhammad bashfully. "I've been playing since I was five. But I love science too. I can't put my finger on it. It's something about the abstract thinking that attracts me. I find that somehow music and science piece together."
As the co-leaders gathered participants together for a group photo at the program's end, Ramus and Dickinson beamed. "These students are the core of a new culture," said Ramus. "There is definitely a sense of cohesion and friendship, something they can carry through and rely on for the next year.
"They got a huge amount of attention from professors. I am so proud of all the students and mentors involved in this program. It far exceeded our hopes for the first year."
The BSE was funded, in part, through a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Other participating faculty members were: Rachel Beane, geology; Tom Pietraho and Jennifer Taback, mathematics; and Barry Logan, biology. Overall, more than 25 Bowdoin faculty members participated in various aspects of the program.