Trinity boasts experiential learning at its best
by Jim H. Smith
Soon after graduating from Trinity last year, David Correll ’13 landed a job as a research coordinator at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Psychiatric Neuroimaging Division and at the hospital’s Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging in Boston. A self-designed neurochemistry major at Trinity, Correll coordinates research on the effects of the drug Lunesta on sleep and memory in people suffering from schizophrenia.
Correll, who plans to eventually attend medical school and hopes to become an emergency physician, says his successful application for the job was largely due to his Trinity education. “When I came to Trinity, I was actually thinking of majoring in biology,” he says. “But then I developed an interest in neuroscience, and I discovered the Chemistry Department.”
He also met Janet Morrison, principal lecturer in chemistry, who taught his second semester general chemistry course. An analytical chemist, Morrison is not obliged to do research as a lecturer. She does it because she enjoys it and is good at it, with a significant track record of funded research and awards at Trinity and elsewhere. Over several summers, Correll assisted her on projects to develop methods to analyze hair and saliva for illegal psychoactive “designer” drugs, often packaged and sold as “bath salts.” His undergraduate thesis was about the development of tests–similar to those used to test presumed drunk drivers for alcohol–that can detect a drug called MDMA after it has been ingested by people who are impaired. MDMA is shorthand for 3, 4-methylenedioxy-N-methylamphetamine, better known by its street names, ecstasy, E, X, or XTC.
Assisting Morrison, says Correll, was “an amazing experience.” From his first day in her lab, he found himself working closely with her, becoming intimately familiar with the research process, and using a gas chromatography mass spectrometer, a powerful analytical device that combines two processes–gas-liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry–to detect and identify all sorts of substances.
Because these remarkable devices cost in the neighborhood of $300,000, many schools do not have one. But Trinity does, and students like Correll are able to learn from regular, hands-on experience how to solve problems with it. Thanks to his work with Professor Morrison and on a separate project with Sarah Raskin, professor of psychology and neuroscience, Correll says, “When I applied to Mass General, I was already familiar with the research process and knew how to do the kind of work I’m responsible for.”
Such uncommon out-of-the-classroom learning experiences are commonplace at Trinity, says Thomas Mitzel, dean of the faculty and vice president for academic affairs. Trinity has a deep and historic commitment to experiential learning, and many faculty members find avenues to provide such opportunities for their students.
“Not only is Trinity’s faculty-to-student ratio low, just nine to one, but our faculty members generally teach what’s commonly referred to as a three-two class load,” Mitzel says. “That is, they teach three courses one semester and two the next or 10 courses over two years. This affords them time outside of the classroom to work with students on senior theses, independent study projects, capstone projects, and other research activities. This out-of-classroom teaching is an important component of a Trinity education. Over the past five years, Trinity has averaged about 1,100 such student-involved projects every year.”
Mitzel says that while small class sizes enhance the Trinity education, those projects offer especially rich learning opportunities. “Our students give the faculty high marks,” he says. “Because class sizes are small, students establish close relationships with faculty, often beginning with first-year seminars. Those close relationships, in turn, frequently result in opportunities to assist professors on special projects, where they get to work with faculty members one-on-one, engaging in significant research and really developing their skills.”
Professors in every discipline at Trinity oversee creative learning projects that offer bright students opportunities to refine their skills and develop their credentials. Consider Posse Scholar Victoria Smith Ellison ’15, for instance.
In the autumn of her sophomore year, Ellison was one of 15 students in “Cities, Suburbs and Schools,” an undergraduate seminar taught by Jack Dougherty, associate professor of educational studies. Both a course and a community learning project, the seminar has produced several research studies, including a paper Ellison wrote about her research on the connection between housing and school policies based on the sociologist Charles S. Johnson’s research of African American migration patterns to Hartford during the Great Migration in the 1920s. The paper was published through ConnecticutHistory.org.
Ellison’s experience in the seminar fueled an abiding interest in the ways that public schools reflect the dynamics of their communities. That, in turn, led to work with the Chicago Housing Authority during the summer of 2013. She also has been involved in projects designed by Judy Dworin, professor of theater and dance, with female prisoners at the York Correctional Institution in Niantic, Connecticut.
Ellison is contemplating a number of possible post-Trinity options, and she will take with her a resume distinguished by real-world experiences and evidence of strong research skills. Her future, she says, is “wide open,” and she contemplates it with confidence.
Peter Reheis ’16, a computer science and mathematics major, is one of two students who participated in this year’s Trinity Summer Science Research Program as research assistants to Takunari Miyazaki, associate professor of computer science, on a project called “Expander Graphs and Their Applications.” Graphs, explains Miyazaki, are “collections of nodes and connections between them. In engineering and computer science, they are the most fundamental mathematical objects to model various types of networks, both ‘soft,’ such as social networks, and ‘hard,’ such as the Internet. Expander graphs are the most desirable form–highly connected and yet sparse. Such graphs allow many nodes to communicate with each other using the least resources.”
Reheis says the opportunity to immerse himself in such high-level research at such an early stage of his education is unusual. “The main use for expander graphs is in building computer networks, but the theory has broad applicability in advanced computer science and mathematics,” he says. “This is a great learning opportunity for me.”
Kristin Triff, associate professor of fine arts, is an architect as well as an art historian. She teaches both subjects in the Department of Fine Arts and in the Cities Program, Trinity’s one-year, nonmajor curriculum for strongly motivated first-year students that examines cities and urban issues, past and present, in the United States and elsewhere, from various humanities and social science perspectives. She calls her Cities Program course a kind of educational “boot camp.”
“We cover everything from Mesopotamia to Hartford,” she says. “It’s a comprehensive introduction to the built environment, and the first-year students will be out of the classroom often, learning on-site.”
Among other projects, Triff will ask her students to contemplate critically the urban changes to Hartford documented by Richard Welling, a prominent Connecticut artist who chronicled “urban renewal” in Hartford, his hometown, with detailed ink drawings of new buildings and those they replaced. Welling’s work will be on display at the Connecticut Historical Society this fall, and the students will visit the exhibition and sites all over Hartford to see, firsthand, the sites Welling sketched and provide detailed feedback on the evolution of individual sites and the city as a whole.
One needs only to scratch the surface of the Trinity experience to find similar projects and programs that turn bright students into seasoned researchers with maturity and expanded world views. Indeed, says Dean of the Faculty Mitzel, “What happens outside the classroom really defines students’ preparation to move on.”