Joy Buchanan '99 of Brooklyn was thinking science when she looked for a college "away from home, but not too far away."
by James Leach
Imagine yourself as a high school student who excels in the sciences. You are at the top of your class and your scores on entrance exams guarantee you a place at one of the country's best colleges. You dream of a career as a physician, research-er or college professor. You sense the pride in your community as you head off to college, knowing that the road ahead is long, but that the destination is worth the trip.
Then shortly after classes begin you realize there is a problem. It's as though your classmates have already seen the material that is new and challenging to you. Not only aren't you leading class discussions, you can't even follow. You study harder but can't catch up. For each small gain you make, the rest of the class leaps further ahead. Labs that seem commonplace to the rest are beyond your comprehension. Losing confidence, you keep to yourself; your questions seem too simple. By the end of the year, you decide that the sciences are out of your reach and you change majors, or drop out altogether.
For the Colgate science faculty who saw students trapped in this dilemma the pattern was a predictable and frustrating one. Especially so because it was selective and denied opportunity to one group of students who, despite hard work and innate talent, were starting out with a disadvantage that they had little chance of overcoming.
"In financially disadvantaged areas, the way schools save money is to cut back in the sciences, where labs are expensive," said psychology professor Jack Dovidio. "Labs get short-changed in those schools, so while students may graduate near the top of their classes, they have had less access to scientific methods because of scarce resources."
In greatly disproportionate numbers, those conditions are most likely to affect minority students. And that is the reason that minority students historically have been under-represented among the graduates from science and math programs at colleges like Colgate.
Five years ago, with a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Colgate set out to level the playing field for minority students in the sciences. The resulting Science and Math Initiative (SMI) has produced results that could make it a national model.
Of the four members of the Class of 1994 who affiliated with SMI in its first year, three completed their Colgate careers as science concentrators. One is now working as a lab technician in a research hospital, another is a graduate student at Tulane's School of Public Health, and the third was accepted to medical school.
Fourteen members of last May's graduating class were affiliated with SMI at some point over the previous four years; eleven graduated with science concentrations, and eight continue in science-related careers. One is studying at Downstate Medical Center, another attends medical school in the Dominican Republic, and a third plans on medical school following a more extended career path. Two are researchers, one is a graduate student in psychology, one teaches science for Teach America, and one works for a computer company in El Salvador.
"In the previous 20 years," said Dovidio, "I can think of only two minority students who qualified for medical school."
Jyoti Bhatia '97 (left) said that an internship with San Francisco's Department of Public Works "helped me understand that my interests go beyond the natural sciences."
Learning to learn
Through its Office of Undergraduate Studies, Colgate has a 26-year history of providing support for educationally disadvantaged students. SMI supplements that program with components that
are designed specifically to help students make the adjustment to introductory science courses. Once that adjustment has been made, experience proves, SMI students thrive.
SMI incorporates summer preparatory courses, opportunities for research and internships, increased contact with faculty, a range of support services, and an emphasis on learning in group settings.
In the summer prior to their first fall semester, SMI students enroll in a program that introduces them to learning at the college level. Introductory biology is often an entry point for students in the sciences, and a five-week summer course equips SMI students to deal with more difficult concepts such as mitosis, genetics, and DNA and protein synthesis. The course also teaches study and learning skills that will apply in classrooms and labs throughout students' undergraduate years. The instructor for the course becomes a mentor for SMI students who enroll in introductory biology in the fall. The summer program also includes courses in math and scientific writing.
That first-year summer program has a benefit beyond the classroom, said Jose Davila '97. "Like the sports teams who come to campus early, the groups that come for SMI and OUS become your friends." Now, as a junior, he continues to study with friends he met in the summers through SMI.
During their first two years on campus, all Colgate students are advised by the instructor from their first-year seminar. SMI students have the additional benefit of regularly scheduled advising sessions with the director of the Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, currently mathematics professor Thomas Tucker. "The structure of courses in the sciences is more vertical," says Tucker. "One course progresses to the next. I counsel students about how important it is for them to take certain courses in the sciences early in their Colgate careers."
SMI students can also turn for advice and counsel to Lisa de Leon '83, assistant dean for undergraduate studies and a co-director of SMI. She can assist in finding tutors and resolving academic and personal issues, and also publishes a newsletter with items of special interest to SMI students.
Nearly three quarters of SMI students enroll in the introductory biology class during their first fall semester on campus. For those students, the biology department's collaborative laboratory program, funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, places them in contact with others who are enrolled in intermediate or advanced biology classes. As with the summer programs and other aspects of SMI, the collaborative labs create opportunities for students to learn from one another.
"The original idea was to build an intellectual community of color," Dovidio said. "Students of color had told us that when they were the only minority in a class they felt extra pressure. Collaborative programs develop a community of support that has some real benefits."
Matthew Nwosu '96 felt "a sense of relationship" coming out of SMI, and in particular from the summer courses. Lovelace Cann '95, who has taken an extra year to add physics courses to her transcript, often studies with other SMI students. "We have that bond," she says. "There is always someone there for you."
As the first year progresses, SMI students seek out summer research assistantships with members of the science faculty. In the summer between their first and sophomore years, the SMI students work half time as paid research assistants on faculty projects. Many, like Nwosu, say it is the research that truly stimulates their interest in the sciences.
"I really like doing research," he said. After his first year Nwosu assisted geologist Rich April. That not only provided introductions to many of the faculty in the department where Nwosu would major, it also led to other research opportunities. April gave Nwosu a reference to a funded research project at Trinity College in San Antonio. His findings there were published. Nwosu then went on to an internship last summer with the San Francisco Department of Public Works.
For Cann, who began her research in biology with professor Nancy Pruitt, this component of SMI "is a good incentive because it provides you with the hands-on research experience you need if you want to go on to medical school or graduate school."
As assistant dean for undergraduate studies, Lisa de Leon '83 helps put in place a variety of programs for SMI students, including tutoring, access to internships, field trips and science fairs.
Getting the jump on chemistry
At the same time that they are involved with research, SMI students also enroll in a nine-week summer chemistry course prior to their sophomore year. In science programs across the country, introductory chemistry can often be a "weed-out" course -- one of those numbingly difficult challenges that cause potential scientists to reconsider the course of their lives.
For years the two-semester sequence in introductory chemistry had that effect on aspiring scientists in Colgate's community of color. "These were kids who had always believed they could do whatever they set out to do," said chemistry professor Peter Sheridan. "Then they would get thrown into the rotating knives of Chem 101 and become awfully discouraged."
To compensate, Sheridan developed the pre-sophomore course, Chemistry 100, which he describes as "basically quantitative literacy. We want students to develop a feel for the numbers." The course incorporates some of the material from introductory chemistry, but at the same time teaches SMI students how to approach the work.
"We teach quantitative skills," said Sheridan. "We also take students into the labs. And I give a quiz every day, because the fundamental rule in introductory chemistry is, `Don't fall behind.'"'
Sheridan's colleague Quang Shen also teaches the pre-sophomore course. "Without this course, SMI students might not develop their chemistry skills until they are juniors," he said. "That's just too late."
With the experience of the 100 level course behind them, SMI students enter introductory chemistry on even footing -- and sometimes with an edge. They have learned to work together, and they are comfortable with the concepts and skills they need. They become resources for one another and for other students in the class. "It all helps to develop their sense of being able to do the work," said Sheridan.
Shen reports that he sees the influence of the SMI program in upper-level chemistry courses as well. SMI students are now challenging for top grades in courses such as his highly technical physical chemistry class.
Davila, the junior from the Bronx, changed his major to chemistry after the pre-sophomore course. He came to Colgate with plans to study physics, he said, "but the second summer really put things in focus for me. That chemistry course showed me where I want to go."
Students in the Science and Math Initiative have a second academic advisor in the director of the Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, Tom Tucker. His involvement ensures that SMI students are taking courses in the proper sequence.
While the required elements of SMI are complete after the Chemistry 100 course, the support system continues through de Leon and Tucker and other members of the science faculty. De Leon works with groups on campus and off to ensure that SMI students have the advantage of such options as field trips to scientific sites, a science fair sponsored by Procter & Gamble Pharmaceuticals, additional summer research, and some popular (and competitive) internships.
Procter & Gamble's Sandie Anderson was a research scientist at the company's Norwich manufacturing plant when her company first offered an internship for SMI students in 1993. She helped develop the program and was a mentor to the Colgate interns. From her new position at the company's headquarters in Cincinnati she said Procter & Gamble viewed the program "as the right thing to do. It was our bit for science education."
Anderson said Procter & Gamble had three goals for the internship: to encourage SMI students to seek advanced degrees, to provide stimulating projects and mentors, and to have fun. The company has taken on two new interns each year. Its first class included Shirley Johnson '95, who is now a medical student.
The other continuing SMI internship -- at the Department of Public Works in San Francisco -- developed during a breakfast meeting between Dovidio and his colleague Howard Jackson, a DPW consultant. "Howard mentioned the availability of the internship and we worked out the details over coffee," Dovidio recalls. The sponsors have been so pleased with the program that they have invited the SMI students to return for a second and third year. "It is a place for students to test themselves and get a taste of project management," said Jackson, who calls Colgate students "good citizens."
Nwosu was one of the San Francisco interns. Jyoti Bhatia '97 was another. "It was a phenomenal experience," said Bhatia, who worked for management information systems in the bureau of engineering. "Learning the city
and the bureaucracy helped me to understand that my interests go beyond the natural sciences."
Matthew Nwosu '96 has appreciated the opportunities that SMI creates for hands-on research and internships.
Attracting promising scientists
Ursula Cargill is assistant dean and coordinator of multicultural recruitment in Colgate's admission office. With science division director Thomas Tucker and the director of the office of undergraduate programs, Lisa de Leon, she selects students who will be invited to participate in the SMI program.
Students are invited to participate in SMI after they have made application to the college through regular channels. Cargill explained that students who are selected for the program will have expressed an interest in the sciences. She, Tucker and de Leon make the final decisions on who will be invited to participate after reviewing high school transcripts and scores on standardized tests.
The return on offers to join SMI is high. Eighteen to twenty offers per year yield a dozen acceptances, higher than the return in Colgate's pool of acceptances overall. "The demand is definitely there," Cargill said. "What students find most attractive is the opportunity to collaborate with faculty in research and in using the technology. They also like the opportunity to gain practical experience through internships."
Competition to join SMI is high, says Cargill, who adds that both students and administrators show great interest in the program during her high school visits.
Joy Buchanan '99 of Brooklyn said that her pre-first-year classmates felt well-prepared by SMI. "They talked about the opportunities for research and how good that will look on their résumés, and how well prepared they felt for their junior courses."
Buchanan, who had taken advanced placement biology in high school, found that the SMI pre-first-year biology course refreshed her memory. She was able to exempt the introductory biology course, and is enrolled this semester in vertebrate zoology.
She also said that she feels a connection to her summer professor, biologist Robert Arnold, who she knows would be available if she needs advice.
When Jyoti Bhatia was looking at colleges she said she "had the impression that most of the people who went to private colleges had come from upper middle class socio-economic groups, therefore had better educational opportunities. I was in the top two percent of my high school. I didn't want to end up getting Ds in college and flunk out."
SMI has provided her the resources and reassurance to succeed. "It's another place, other than your dean and adviser, where you can get some advice. I've maximized the potential that Colgate offered me," Bhatia added. "I've been very fortunate in the aid and opportunities the college has given me and I don't mean to not use any of them. I'm definitely sold on Colgate."
Students in the SMI program are believers. Said Lovelace Cann, who is a Procter & Gamble intern and extended her Colgate education one year to complete physics: "The program kept me interested in the sciences. I learned new skills through the summer research opportunities. It works."
Said Matthew Nwosu: "Given the political climate it must be hard to initiate a program like this. The goal is really to increase the representation of minorities in the sciences. I think it is courageous on a campus like this for someone to have the forethought to say such a program is needed."