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Connections - Continued


Lab director Katherine Dorfman (right) shows students how to use the X-ray diffractometer to see the structure of crystals. Teaching assistant Petra Scamborova '97 says, "The X-ray crystallography lab uses such a sophisticated machine that even I, a biochemistry major, hadn't used it before."

Mount Holyoke has a long tradition of graduating a high proportion of female scientists--and one-quarter of current students with declared majors chose science--but there is still "a larger group which has trouble seeing that science has any relevance to their lives," according to assistant professor of chemistry Donald Cotter, one of the professors who team-teach Unity of Science. "Those who come here wanting to be scientists are going to be served well, but science exists not just to create more scientists. One of our jobs is to help all students understand science."

Unity of Science provides a doorway not to a particular scientific discipline, but to the explanatory power of science itself, the ability to explain a whole range of natural phenomena with a very few fundamental ideas. Unity professors ask students to construct their own understanding, rather than memorize a prescribed set of facts, during the yearlong course. There are fewer lectures and more hands-on experiments, more individual attention (from three professors, nine teaching assistants, and a lab director), group research projects instead of exams, and weekly discussion sessions.

The approach works. "Partly because we don't have tests, I feel the freedom to be curious," says Sarah Lachance '99, one of fifty-five students in Unity last semester. "I ask lots of questions, and there are experts all around me to answer them. If other science courses were taught like this one, I'd take a lot more of them."

Associate professor of geology Steven Dunn says,"We want to make science understandable, but we're not willing to let go of real science content or intellectual rigor to reach students." But at the same time, the use of specialized jargon is minimized and everyday language is used as a starting point. Thus Cotter explains quantum numbers as "addresses where electrons can be found in an atom, just as addresses define where people live in a neighborhood." It's an approach designed to make the sophisticated insights of modern science accessible to beginning students, and to be useful whether or not they continue in science. "But if a student decides to major in science, we want the background she gets in this course to help her enormously," Dunn adds.

"This course is not just for nonscience students," professor of astronomy Tom Dennis stresses. "It is a good way for anyone to study science." In fact, the teaching assistants discussed how valuable a similar integrative course would be for upper-level science students like themselves. The TAs were amazed at what the mostly first-year students are asked to absorb. "The labs in Unity of Science aren't as technically difficult as labs in a typical science course," says Belle Bergner '97, "but they're more difficult conceptually because students must traverse traditionally distinct scientific boundaries." Kris Hudock '97 adds, "This is an extremely difficult course, because it requires beginning science students to integrate scientific knowledge in a way that I've only done in a 300-level course."

"I want to communicate that there are deep intellectual pleasures to be gained from engaging the world in a scientific way," says assistant professor of chemistry Donald Cotter, one of three professors teaching Unity of Science fall semester.

Hands-On Science Brings New Understanding

What makes Unity so different? "It knocks down the walls between the scientific disciplines," says Serena Schiller '00. "There are no barriers in the brain, so why should there be in science?" Dennis says, "We use ideas that are key in all areas of science and get students to see that the same basic processes are going on throughout nature." Kris Hudock notes that "the main thrust in science these days is collaboration, but it's rare for a course to teach you that. This one does."

Hands-on laboratory experiences form the course's hub. Instead of "cookbook" labs, students design their own investigations after mastering basic techniques. In a two-part lab dubbed "The Secret Life of Spinach," students were first shown how to measure photosynthesis in spinach leaves. "Then we did an experiment of our own devising," says Ali Feinberg '00. "My group looked at how different colors of light affected photosynthesis. That's what real science is about: doing your own experiments, not just following an instruction sheet."

All the labs are "first cousins," showing how similar phenomena underlie the different sciences. Laboratory director Katherine Dorfman says, "The connections among concepts are far more explicit here than in most courses. Students must use what they learn each week in the following weeks' labs." Cotter adds, "We give students very different kinds of lab experiences that you wouldn't get in any single departmental course, and ask them to connect the ideas across the weeks throughout the whole year." Sarah Lachance says, "The labs are structured so cleverly that we have all these 'Aha!' experiences. I'm very excited every time I go to lab."

"Sometimes one student explains something to another, which helps both of them," says lab director Katherine Dorfman, who encourages student participation. "The explainer learns from articulating her knowledge and the listener learns the concept."

Students log even more lab time spring semester, designing and conducting research projects. Each research group chooses a topic, collects data, and presents its conclusions in April. "They work in groups just as real scientists do, gaining an understanding of and appreciation for how science works," says Dunn. "I predict this will be the students' peak experience of the year."

The combined resources of all MHC science departments are available to Unity students in labs and for projects. Students typically use machines such as the atomic absorption spectrometer, the scanning electron microscope, and the X-ray diffractometer only in upper-level courses.

Hands-On Science Brings New Understanding

But the fancy equipment is but a means to the end of greater scientific understanding. "Students are asked to assimilate knowledge from many subjects," says TA Petra Scamborova '97. "It's very interesting and unusual to teach science by giving students information like the pieces of a puzzle and asking them to build the puzzle themselves. It requires a lot from students, but teaches you a lot, too." Dennis agrees: "We're asking students to put the ideas together with relatively little guidance from us professors, though we give them lots of hints."

One by one, students absorb the hints and make connections between seemingly disparate ideas. Frances Perkins student Pat Blomgren remembers her breakthrough moment: "When we did labs on photosynthesis and the photoelectric effect, I saw that the exact same thing was happening in both biology and physics. Suddenly, everything we'd been looking at made sense."

"Unity of Science has given me a new way of thinking, and not just about science," says Ali Feinberg. "The course taught me to look for connections, and I incorporate that in all my classes and in daily life." Sarah Lachance found that scientific facts about light and color helped her in a drawing course. Pat Blomgren says Unity sharpened her writing. "The scientific method involves accurately observing, recording, and describing what you've seen and done. That's exactly what I do in my essays," she explains.

Loraine Byrne, a Frances Perkins student, says she still won't choose a career in science, but "I had a transformative experience about how I think about science and whether it's something I can know about." Byrne says her involvement in the course--as a student last spring and as a TA fall semester--gave her a greater understanding of the scientific basis of public-policy issues like environmental degradation and nuclear power. As for ex-humanities major Kate Thall, she's already registered for Fundamental Chemistry and Calculus III, and sees medical school in her future.
-- BY EMILY HARRISON WEIR

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