Experiment At Evergreen: Transforming Students into Scientists
Evergreen senior Melissa Pickett holds a pipette like an ice pick. With Zen-like efficiency she snaps on a plastic tip, draws a sample from a vial, deposits it into another vial containing clear liquid, discards the tip, and starts the process over. Each new vial, now on ice, contains ethanol and a sample of Malagasy lemur DNA. The ethanol and cold will concentrate the DNA into large enough quantities for analysis.
A few minutes later, Pickett weighs my first question—“So tell me about your work”—while nursing a 20-ounce coffee in anticipation of a long night ahead at the lab.
“How about I draw it for you?” she says, picking up a pen and tablet and plunging into a whirlwind tour of mammalian cell structure, how viruses infect organisms, distinguishing features of retroviruses, cell proteins that inhibit viral replication, and the evolutionary history of lemurs over the past 65 million years, give or take a few hundred millennia.
Pickett has partnered with faculty member Clarissa Dirks, a virologist, to discover why lemurs from Madagascar have a built-in resistance to HIV and similar retroviruses. Pickett has staked out her own corner of the work, examining how a particular lemur cell protein, may block HIV infection. She recently learned that a Harvard lab is on the same trail.
"I've got to work fast," Pickett laughs.
Pickett's command of her subject is more remarkable because she’d never even picked up a pipette until September 2006, when she enrolled in the full-time program Molecule to Organism. But hang around Evergreen’s labs for any length of time and you find student after student engaged in rigorous scientific research, often directing their own projects.
On a recent trip to Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, faculty member Clarissa Dirks introduced senior Melissa Pickett to two worldrenowned scientists. “I sat there and watched Melissa convince them of certain points and defend her arguments scientifically,” says Dirks. “A year and a half ago she’d never had a lab research experience, and now she’s holding her own with two stellar scientists.”
Native Chicagoan D.J. Cox works for entomology faculty member Jack Longino on a National Science Foundation grant studying ants and weevils in Central America. Alyssa Benson, from Lacey, earned her analytical chemistry chops by working with faculty members Dharshi Bopegedera and Clyde Barlow and recently lent her skills to The Nature Conservancy to study effective methods for ridding western Washington prairies of scotch broom. Benton’s fellow chemistry student Stephanie Blair, a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Ojibwe nation, supports environmental work on the Skokomish reservation. She and some teammates performed soil analysis to assist in the accurate dating of a dig in the Mojave Desert.
For a small liberal arts college, Evergreen has been turning out exceptional science graduates for more than three decades. Science alumni work in local, state and national government. A good number punch in at prestigious organizations in medicine, technology and industry, including NASA, Battelle, Biogen, Harborview, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Seattle Biomedical, Boeing, and Amgen.
Evergreen’s undergraduate science program is really a 37-year-old experiment of its own in which the conditions are always changing and the results are unpredictable.LAB MANUAL–TEACHING AND LEARNING SCIENCE AT EVERGREEN
- An accomplished science faculty dedicated to full-time interdisciplinary curriculum
- Engaged students with healthy independent streaks
- Equipped Laboratories
- Staff support
- A willingness to take risks most colleges wouldn't
Not everyone who studies science at Evergreen will work in a scientific field. Agriculture students may want to gain knowledge of botany or chemistry, visual artists to explore microscopy, humanities students to understand the role of science in culture. “One of the best things about Evergreen,” according to D. J. Cox, “is if you really show an interest in something, there will be faculty who allow you space and time to develop that and go crazy on it.”
And if it’s a career in science you’re after, Evergreen offers not so much an undergraduate education as an entry-level apprenticeship in the profession. It’s an approach that sharply diverges from science programs at traditional colleges and universities.
To conduct your own Evergreen science experiment, follow these steps. If something doesn’t work, then innovate further.
Evergreen Science Index
62: Percentage of Evergreen students with a science emphasis who attend graduate or professional school within five years of graduation.
0: Number of Nobel Prize winners on the Evergreen faculty—so far. Although Evergreen doesn’t have a Nobel laureate, it does have an impressive assembly of nationally and internationally recognized researchers in fields such as solar physics, microphage biology, biochemistry, marine sciences, forest ecology, and entomology.
75: Number of grants awarded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to Evergreen faculty since 1975; more than 30 of these grants ($6.8 million) were awarded in the past decade alone. Other research grant makers include the National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Geographic Society, Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund, and M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust.
100: Percentage of science faculty engaged in independent research who also teach in the undergraduate curriculum.
23:1 Ratio of students to faculty in Evergreen science programs.
0: Number of graduate students teaching at Evergreen, including in undergraduate science programs.
STEP 1Build a rigorous interdisciplinary curriculum.
Immerse students in full-time coordinated studies that cut across the boundaries of traditional scientific disciplines. Set the bar high. There is no fourth law of thermodynamics that says freshmen cannot understand and discuss primary literature, or that undergraduates are not capable of “real” research, or that faculty can’t take on new full-time teaching assignments every year.
For Evergreen faculty and students, learning comes from being able to see underlying connections. “The interdisciplinary nature of the curriculum in the sciences is so powerful,” says chemistry faculty member Paula Schofield. “The students start to see key principles pop up in a multi-celled organism, a single-celled organism, and something in a beaker you would do in a lab. And there are so many connections that they would never see otherwise.”
Students and faculty both acknowledge that the science curriculum is intense, laborious, and frequently exhausting. Although Evergreen’s been teaching this way for nearly four decades, it’s still viewed as radical elsewhere. “We treat as normal what would be revolutionary at other institutions,” says molecular biology faculty member Jim Neitzel.
Dirks agrees. “We have a lot of belief in what our students can do,” she explains. “I know when I first came here, I made what I thought was a radical suggestion, that we have students write research proposals. But my colleagues said, ‘Oh yeah, we do that all the time.’ Not many places teach like this. In science it is so critical, and they’re calling for more of it at the national level.”
2008 graduate Stephanie Blair has always wanted more of it, especially when she sees what’s needed to protect culture and resources in Indian Country where, like her parents, she plans to work. “I like being able to connect my training as a scientist and a chemist to environmental questions, to go into the field to expand the scope of my projects.” For Blair—a veteran of two chemistry-heavy year-long programs—that expanded scope included additional studies in geology, hydrology, forest ecology, environmental health, toxicology, and grant writing.
Combining book learning with hands-on lab experience is critical to students’ success in careers and graduate school. Evergreen’s integrated seminar and lab approach to science “is a huge distinction that cannot be underestimated,” says chemistry faculty member Paula Schofield.
STEP 2Get messy.
Integrate intensive lab and field work into academic programs.
Hands-on learning is a hallmark of Evergreen, and nowhere more so than in the sciences, where students are expected to master theory and technique. For faculty like Schofield and her fellow chemist, Clyde Barlow, real scientific work is physically and intellectually messy. Scientific questions tend to be thorny, Barlow says, and students need to experience that part of science. “Reading about it just doesn’t cut it. But if you do it yourself and run into all sorts of problems along the way, then it becomes real to you.”
For Jack Longino, observation is as critical as experimentation, and going outside is as important as working in a lab. “There can be a misperception that the only real science is experimental science,” he says. “There’s still a huge amount of science that is just basic description, being able to see things.” Field work is integral to Longino’s teaching. “We take a minimum of equipment. The hard part is not the equipment. The hard part is the question.”
During winter quarter this year, he and teaching partner Paul Butler took their Tropical Rainforests program to Costa Rica for three weeks to experience a variety of habitats. But depending on your interests, you don’t have to go that far. Evergreen’s Olympia campus offers ample opportunities to rub humus and chlorophyll into your jeans. With 1000 acres of forest and 1000 feet of saltwater beach, Evergreen is its own field laboratory and home to a diversity of species, including Thuja plicata (Western Redcedar), Dryocopus pileatus (pileated woodpecker), Odocoileus hemionus columbianus (blacktailed deer) and the long-lived, fearsome Evergreen mascot, Panopea abrupta (geoduck). Faculty and students are involved in a number of efforts to catalog the campus’s biodiversity, understand its ecosystems, and address college sustainability challenges.
STEP 3Share the toys.
Teach students how to operate scientific instruments, even the sophisticated, expensive ones; then let them use those instruments!
It’s not unusual for a college or university to have a scanning electron microscope or an automontage system. Nor is it odd that Evergreen has other expensive analytical instruments: additional specialty microscopes, a Gel Logic bioimaging system, and a variety of spectrometers and other instruments used for chemical analysis. What is very unusual is that any Evergreen undergraduate—they don’t have to be enrolled in science—can use the equipment. They just need to know what they’re doing. And Evergreen has a unique, effective system for teaching students what they need to know about using instruments.
They call it “driver’s ed.”
Any student who wants to use the college’s nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer or its ionic chromatograph, for example, can take workshops that encompass technique and theory. The workshops teach students how to use the equipment with care, but also to dig in and understand its functions. “It’s not just a black box,” says Marty Beagle, arts and sciences operations manager. “You need to know what the black box is designed to do.” Beagle, the scientific instructional technicians and the instrument aides emphasize conceptual skills with equipment use. The upshot is you can use the equipment, but it’s the mastery of theory that determines whether you’ll find the information useful. As Alyssa Benson says, "knowing the concentrations of nitrogen in different soil samples means nothing unless you know if the differences are significant."
STEP 4Keep it real.
Encourage projects that answer significant questions, engage students in meaningful research, and provide opportunities for them to present their work.
When Alyssa Benson and Stephanie Blair took Environmental Analysis with Clyde Barlow, chemist Jeff Kelly, and geologist Jim Stroh, the two students experienced something that sounds more like boot camp than science class. Among other things, Barlow and crew had students measuring contaminants in wells to monitor drifting pollution from leaking underground oil tanks and the impact of rotting woody debris on forest soil pH.
It’s part of the faculty’s strategy to expose students to the less romantic aspects of scientific careers. In a lot of programs, says marine biology faculty Amy Cook ’90, “students are asked to do a project, which involves putting together a project proposal, a budget, the whole group thing of figuring out who is going to do what—understanding that science involves a lot of patience, it involves a lot of boredom. It’s not always that exciting.”
For Cook, who earned a B.S. from Evergreen in 1990 and joined the faculty in 2001, intensive project experience gives students a professional leg up. “Students come out of Evergreen programs where they’ve developed independent projects with a lot better understanding of what science is, how to interact with other people in terms of getting science done, what the limitations are.” Evergreen undergraduates speak at regional and national conferences far more often than their peers from most other institutions. “It happens everywhere in the sciences here,” says Dylan Fischer, an ecosystem ecologist who joined the faculty in 2005. “That’s the advantage of being able to have large chunks of time to work with people.” Fischer points to a whiteboard in his lab with the titles of 14 student-led journal articles—“Salmon and Litter Diversity” and “Birds and Insect Galls,” for example—all at various stages of production. Every week he and his students meet and discuss one of the manuscripts–editing, improving, and figuring out where best to submit it. Since Fischer started his weekly publications salon, his students have had two journal articles published and two more accepted by journals for peer review. Learning to express themselves with other scientists, to relate to them as colleagues, is only one part of the communications apprenticeship. Dharshi Bopegedera believes outreach to younger students is of critical importance for students and the community. As adviser to Evergreen’s award-winning Chemistry Club, she frequently organizes opportunities for students to teach at schools and community events. And she has encountered skepticism when she’s asked to bring her students for presentations. “They say, ‘You’re going to bring Evergreen students [pause] into my classroom?’ And then we come, and they say, ‘When can you come back?’”
STEP 5Dare to fail.
Find ways to support risk-taking by students, faculty, and the college.
When you have a science program that gives students independence and responsibility to explore individual projects and interests, and lets them use expensive and delicate instruments, you’ve got potential not only for tremendous success but also some spectacular failures. Evergreen students, Marty Beagle says, “are encouraged to rely on their own devices, more than perhaps other schools, and sometimes what happens is that they crash and burn.” Yet faculty members and students believe the benefits of Evergreen’s approach outweigh the risks. For Beagle, the key to ensuring students have the optimum chance to succeed is not to eliminate rigor, simplify lab projects, or reduce access. It is instead to create as many support structures as the college can afford, to maintain the system in all its complexity. Arguably the most significant support innovation has been the creation of Beagle’s team of science instructional technicians (SITs). Far more than lab technicians or graduate student TAs at a traditional university, these six staff members are the connective tissue between faculty, laboratory facilities and students. “One minute I’m moving a refrigerator and the next minute I’m instructing someone about how to use the electron microscope,” says SIT Ladd Rutherford. “There are parts of the job that are tedious and there are parts that are really personally enriching, when you actually see the lights go on in students.” Faculty frequently speak of the SITs as colleagues and coinstructors. They seek advice from SITs about upcoming labs and rely on them to provide support for students doing independent work. All the SITs share broad responsibilities across scientific disciplines and care for a variety of instruments. “It’s not a static job,” says SIT Jenna Nelson. “I have a huge opportunity to learn new things and work with different people—both to teach them and to learn from them. I learn from the students all the time.”
THE ETERNAL MYSTERY OF THE WORLD
“The eternal mystery of the world,” said Albert Einstein, “is its comprehensibility.” If science is about anything, it is about discovering how the universe works. Isaac Newton called it child’s play, and you can find that play alive and well at Evergreen.
It’s in Jack Longino’s musings about the importance of specimen collections. It’s in Stephanie Blair’s awe over the complexity of the salmon cycle and Clyde Barlow’s and Clarissa Dirks’ admiration for what their students accomplish. In the end, it is an insatiable, infectious curiosity that students, staff, and faculty share for figuring things out.
“Ultimately, I just never get bored with it and keep discovering new things,” Melissa Pickett explains. “If you can do something 16 to 18 hours a day and not get bored, that’s a blessing.”