“S P E C & Lab Buddies: Creating a Community of Learners in Chemistry”
Dr.Laura Muller, Professor of Chemistry
Dr. Janina Benoit, Associate Professor of Chemistry
Dr. Elita Pastra-Landis, Professor of Chemistry
1. A brief description of your project and its potential to effect institutional change and to promote student engagement and achievement.
The Chemistry Department at Wheaton College is embarking on a two-pronged approach that will help to create a community of learners in chemistry in the early stages of the major. At the CHAS Faculty Forum in May of 2009, some speakers and presentations suggested that there were strong indicators that underrepresented students benefit more than majority students from programs that build a supportive student community within a department. The information implied that underrepresented students, specifically students of color, feel more comfortable in a welcoming learning environment and therefore perform better. In our experience, part of developing comfort in the sciences comes from the realization that science is grounded in collaborative work, and we intend to introduce students to this concept through our Skills Practice and Enhancement in Chemistry (SPEC) and Lab Buddies programs, which together help students improve their chemistry skills, both laboratory and study skills, and help them develop a sense of “belonging” within the department.
Several speakers at the CHAS Faculty Forum in May commented on the higher level of success by students who built community and connection within a department. In fact, we know anecdotally that junior and senior Chemistry majors at Wheaton see their peers as important contributors to their learning experience. They can often be found working together on problem sets or discussing concepts from class. For this reason, we wish to help students form a cohort earlier in their science careers.
We intend to make chemistry more inviting to new Wheaton students by involving senior Chemistry students in a mentoring relationship with students in Introductory Chemistry. The overall goal of our programs is to enhance recruitment, retention and success of underrepresented students in Chemistry. Therefore, our specific objectives are to: 1) improve student skills and performance at the introductory level, and 2) foster a sense of belonging within the department and discipline.
We have had “lab buddies”, in a limited role, working in laboratory sections of introductory chemistry courses for the past two years. Lab Buddies are upper level students who serve as assistants to the instructor by answering questions, observing laboratory technique, and helping students who may work somewhat more slowly or need further clarification. We have found that the students also ask “lab buddies” about a myriad of issues which can be characterized as science-specific academic advising issues. These include course selection, tips on working with professors, academic challenges pertaining to the course and specific questions about the department. With that in mind, we have decided to restructure the Lab Buddies job description to include more formal “peer academic advisor” duties. At Wheaton, peer academic advisors are called Preceptors and they are assigned to every first year seminar. Similarly, Lab Buddies will be assigned to a first or second year chemistry lab sections. In their expanded role the Lab Buddies will serve as an additional layer of department-specific advising that will help inform and guide newer science students as they progress throughout the first and second year. Students will have an opportunity to visit with the lab buddy with whom they have developed the most chemistry (pun intended) and comfort. Interaction with Lab Buddies will also provide first- and second-year students access to some of our most enthusiastic upper-level students. Students just beginning their academic careers will be immersed in a community of scholars.
Responsibilities for Lab Buddies:
- Participate in “student-leadership” training session developed by the Advising Office
- Participate in Lab Safety Training through the Chemistry Department
- Assist lab instructor in one pre-assigned lab section of Chemistry 153 per week
- Meet weekly with the instructor to discuss the week’s planned laboratory exercise
- Coordinate a “lab buddy group” that:
i) holds announced office hours during advising week to answer particular questions about chemistry courses and the major
ii) has a study break for students before each exam for the course
The second prong of our program is Skills Practice and Enhancement in Chemistry (SPEC). In our observation of chemistry students, we have learned that members of our entry level chemistry course (Chemistry 153) would benefit from more time to work on the concepts and problem solving techniques introduced in class. Some students suffer because they do not have appropriate study skills. In response to these observations, we have decided to transform our once “optional” study sessions into “mandatory to do well” sessions and will offer extra credit to students who attend. We have selected student leaders for the sections who we believe will help the CH153 students gain skill and confidence in working toward learning introductory chemistry. The SPEC sessions emphasize student-to-student learning. This collaboration occurs at two levels: between the peer leaders and the students and among the students as they work together in groups. Peer Led Team Learning (PLTL) has been used effectively to enhance student learning for some time. In most cases, however PLTL is used as a pedagogical method for the class, not for an accompanying problem session. Presentations at the CHAS conference by colleagues at Mt. Holyoke and Trinity have convinced us that this approach will also be successful for these problem sessions.
Responsibilities for SPEC Peer Leaders:
1) Participate in SPEC training session on “Techniques for Teaching Student Problem-Solving Groups” prior to the beginning of the semester
2) Participate in “student-leadership” training session (given by the Advising Office)
3) Attend Chemistry 153 classes (M,W,F 9:30-10:20)
4) Hold one 1.5-hr problem-solving session per week at assigned time (TBD)
a) Take attendance
b) Introduce problems
c) Aid groups in working through the problems
5) Meet weekly with course instructors to review problem sets and discuss student progress.
These programs will benefit all students in Chemistry 153, though information presented at the CHAS conference suggests that programs like these benefit underrepresented students even more because they help students feel more comfortable in the learning environment. In addition, we believe that working in small groups (which will rotate each week) will allow students to find other students with the same learning style and will form study groups outside of the SPEC sessions.
Evaluation & Assessment – Evaluation of the program will take several forms. First, we will assemble and analyze baseline data on grades from previous years of CH 153 classes. In addition we will perform surveys on students and SPEC leaders to identify perceived successes and limitations of the program. We will analyze within- and between-class data for evidence of the impacts of SPEC attendance on student performance. Finally, we will follow a cohort of underrepresented students from years 1 and 2 of the programs through their academic careers to assess retention and academic success in Chemistry or another natural science.
2. Budget, budget justification, and timeline for completion of the project.
The total cost of the program is $6000 for the year which includes compensation for the SPEC leaders. We can cover the funding for Lab Buddies from the existing budget as we have in the past. We estimate a commitment of 6 hours per week per student leader. We plan to hire 3 students as SPEC leaders for 10 weeks at an hourly wage of $9 an hour; adding the time needed for training, the total per semester becomes $1700 ($3400/academic year). Additionally, we expect to spend $300 per semester on supplies such as textbooks and ancillaries that will help the peer leaders develop problems on their own, coffee/tea and snacks for SPEC study sessions, as well as the study breaks. We also request $2000 for two faculty members to travel to a conference or some other appropriate venue to disseminate results of this project and further enhance our understanding of student learning through projects of this type. The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) may provide the right venue at the upcoming meeting on Faculty Roles in High Impact Practices.
Student stipends $1700/sem x 2 = $3400
Ancillary materials $300/sem x 2 = $600
Conference costs $2000 = $2000
3. Brief summary of your background in promoting student success and engagement in the classroom, and how this project relates to other efforts to promote high achievement among all students on your campus, with special emphasis on students of color.
In January of 2007 Wheaton funded a pilot program of student immersion in the study of chemistry, called the Villars January Scholars Program. Ten students and one peer tutor were funded to participate in almost three weeks of intensive chemistry study. The group met daily from 9 am to 6 pm. The participants were either from groups under-represented in the sciences or students who were committed to teaching so as to improve the participation of under-represented groups in the STEM fields. All the students had taken Chemistry 153 in the fall and would take Chemistry 154 in the spring semester. This program was held in January, between those two semesters, so as to better prepare students for Chemistry 154.
Student work over 17 days consisted of reading the textbook individually, solving problems as a group, sharing understanding and questions, carrying out daily laboratory exercises and data analysis and taking part in field trips to an area museum and commercial or hospital research laboratories. The program was designed and coordinated by Wheaton College chemistry professor, Elita Pastra-Landis, as a short version of the model used by the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. The program involved every member of the chemistry department for the study, laboratory and student presentation sessions. Students repeated a new version of the final examination for Chemistry 153 and improved their score by as much as two letter grades. Increased confidence was evident in their spring semester studies. We have continued to advise and mentor these students and, to our delight, nine out of the ten students remain at the college and eight of the ten students have continued successfully in the sciences at Wheaton.
Additionally, programs are housed in our Marshall Center for Intercultural Learning, which help support the needs of underrepresented groups in the classroom. Of particular note is the development of a Science Cohort, and the coordination of on and off campus opportunities that support the needs of students of color in the sciences. Members of the Science Cohort are able to participate in both Harvard’s and MIT’s STEM and Medical School conferences, which provide our students with external, field-specific mentoring and internship opportunities. The majority of the students who have participated in the science cohort are members of underrepresented group on campus, primarily students of color.
Outside of the sciences, Wheaton offers sections of English 060 for students who require enhanced English language learning. We also provide students an opportunity to take Eng 060 twice, for credit, if the student and English dept feel that the course is necessary for the student’s success at the college. This helps students take the necessary course to succeed without falling behind in overall credits. This course is open to all students, but certainly serves more international students and those whose families have emigrated to the U.S. from non English speaking countries.
The SPEC/Lab Buddies program springs from the work of the January Villars program as well as the Science Cohort in that it serves underrepresented students and aims to increase their success in the sciences by building community, as well as providing a positive learning environment. Success in these programs, we anticipate, will result in higher achievement in the core science courses in the major and help increase the number of students of color and other underrepresented groups in the sciences.
4. Your commitment to share the project outcomes with the larger CHAS community, including a presentation at a meeting to be scheduled by CHAS.
We are certainly interested in sharing findings and specific results from the SPEC and Lab Buddies programs at Wheaton College, including a presentation at future CHAS meetings.