Seeing Science Through a New Lens
Faculty members Carri LeRoy and Abir Biswas say the way students study sciences at Evergreen reveals a world of previously unimagined possibilities.
LeRoy, a biologist with expertise in freshwater ecology, quantitative biology, and environmental education, said, “Having real, hands-on research experience opens doors for women and first-generation students who might not know you can make a living as a professional scientist or an academic. Some students who are now pursuing Ph.D.s never could have imagined themselves in graduate school.”
Those who sign on for an Evergreen interdisciplinary program with a science component don’t just study science—they do it, explained Biswas, a geologist with expertise in biochemical cycling and soils. “As students develop scientific foundations, analytical skills, and critical thinking skills, they learn to frame and set up experiments, collect field samples, prepare samples in the lab, use sophisticated scientific instruments to analyze them, and then compile and interpret the data,” he said.
“Unlike most other colleges, where undergrads might just stand there, observing, while graduate assistants operate the instrumentation, our students train to use the delicate instruments themselves,” said Biswas. “At Evergreen, students gain understanding through doing.”
Biswas and LeRoy described some of the fieldwork opportunities available on campus at the Evergreen Ecological Observation Network, which was established in 2006 by faculty members Dylan Fischer and Paul Przybylowicz. Over the past 10 years, students and faculty have studied the 44 EEON plots located throughout Evergreen’s forest reserve and along its five streams. This long-term ecological research has included carbon sequestration and measurement and analysis of mercury and carbon in the soil, providing insights into crucial aspects of understanding climate change. The trove of biodata and soils information gathered over the decade forms a data resource for current and future students and a springboard for independent student research.
On top of their program teaching roles, LeRoy and Biswas work with students doing research in environmental studies, guided individual learning contracts, and participating in Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF). SURF fellows receive a stipend to engage as research partners on faculty-led projects. At the end of the summer, students and faculty present their research together at a campus symposium. Students have worked on research projects with faculty at a variety of sites, such as Mount St. Helens; the Elwha River; and the endangered prairies of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, located along the I-5 corridor south of Tacoma.
“The scientific research we faculty do is first and foremost for the benefit of our students. It’s at the core of our teaching process. We don’t deliver content through canned labs. Our interdisciplinary model helps students to make connections, to cross boundaries, and think creatively,” LeRoy said.
Instruments of transformation
A series of generous grants over the past two decades from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust have funded the purchase of scientific instruments unusual to find at a small public liberal arts and sciences college. They include an inductively coupled spectrometer; mercury analyzer; carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen analyzer; Fourier transform nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer; scanning electron microscope. Melvin J. “Jack” Murdock was a cofounder of Tektronix, Inc., a ground-breaking manufacturer of oscilloscopes and other test and measurement devices.
Biswas said, “Murdock grants provide opportunities for students to go beyond the measurements and get enough data to derive meaning and put their work into a broader context.”
Science lessons with broad application
Students need to be trained to use the equipment first, and that’s where Evergreen’s Science Support Center comes in. Jenna Nelson, instructional and classroom support technician, along with seven other dedicated staff, leads a team of 12 students employed as instrumentation teaching assistants, known as SITs. They work closely with faculty to train and certify students on the instruments required for their experiments.
Not only do the student assistants train other students, they offer train-the-trainer opportunities, Nelson said. “Sharing their technical knowledge is an important confidence builder and their experience looks good on graduate school applications.”
Biswas credits Evergreen’s small size, structure, and its committed staff for facilitating hands-on learning. “With our curricular structure, students get to spend more time and go deeper, especially upper-division students. And our fantastic staff makes it possible, providing training and upkeep for the heavily used instruments. They always say, ‘we can fix it’ and they keep the instruments up and running.”
Scientific-method experience pays dividends, even for students who go on to non-science careers, LeRoy said. “Having a safe place to fail is important. Students learn a lot through failing on a small scale, trying again, and then succeeding. The critical thinking, self-discipline, patience, and resilience they develop will serve them well in any field.”