Just Desserts

The National Science Foundation recognized Oberlin's past curricular innovation and funds future ones

by Jan Thornton


Being recognized for doing something worthwhile and doing it well is always nice. So we were thrilled last fall when the National Science Foundation (NSF) gave Oberlin College an Award for the Integration of Research and Education (AIRE), making us one of only 10 undergraduate institutions to be so honored. The award recognizes past accomplishments and includes $500,000 to help bring future endeavors to fruition.

There are many reasons why the sciences at Oberlin College emphasize the integration of research and education. Science is more than just a set of facts, and many faculty members believe that to do science is to do research. They believe that training students to do research is central to science education. It affords students first-hand experience with the process of science, helps them decide whether they want a research career, and allows student-faculty teams to work closely together -arguably the best possible teaching-learning context.

Through research, students learn the tools of science: to think critically, design and analyze scientific experiments, and practice current laboratory techniques. The learning is active and participatory, so it is more likely to be remembered. Students gain a greater appreciation of how science is done, an understanding that is as important for scientific literacy in today's society as it is for those who plan to go on in science. It helps students develop their ability to detect "B.S.," Bad Science.

The Past
The NSF wouldn't have considered Oberlin for the AIRE if we didn't have a remarkable track record of integrating research and education at many levels of the curriculum. One primary place this occurs is in student-faculty collaborations. About 65 percent of math and science majors do independent research at Oberlin (the percentage is even higher when off-campus research is counted).

But such projects aren't the only place research and education coalesce at Oberlin. Nearly all math and science faculty members have integrated inquiry-based exercises into their courses. In lecture courses, real-world problems are evaluated and scientific literature is critiqued. Lectures are organized around important scientific discoveries rather than just a hum-drum group of factlets. In The Principles of Solar Energy, students examine the use and movement of energy in buildings. In Psychology of the Arts, they explore the biological and psychological foundation of sensory processes used in art appreciation. Does Mozart really make you smarter? Intro to Neuroscience students were asked on their final exam to critically analyze a newspaper article purporting to prove it does.

The exercises in many lab courses are hands-on, experiential, and investigative. In geology-course field trips, students encounter natural materials or processes and then formulate hypotheses about the phenomena observed. Cell Physiology Research students master a set of techniques and then spend the semester doing a research project on cell motility. These projects have been so successful that at least one group of students has submitted a paper to a scientific conference.

The Future
A proven track record wasn't enough to qualify institutions for an AIRE. They had to have the desire and know-how to continue integrating research and teaching. Oberlin does. Not only are we constructing one of the most advanced examples of ecological architecture in America, the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, and planning a new science center designed expressly for modern teaching methods, but we are further developing the close association between research and teaching in the sciences and extending the model to the social sciences. As part of the AIRE, faculty members will pursue 20 curriculum-development projects over the next three years that will affect all levels of the curriculum and include courses for general audiences and for majors. Many will engage students in the study of specific environmental, economic, or social problems in the community.

When the new environmental studies center is completed, students will examine the building's daily operations, learning the principles of efficient energy utilization and collecting and monitoring data about energy flow in the building. Faculty members will develop an environmental mathematics course in which students learn to use mathematical modeling to help solve problems concerning the environment. The Introduction to Western Art and Archeology course will incorporate exercises to teach students to use archaeometry to explore questions about dating, authenticity, and composition of archeological artifacts.

This is just a taste of what is to come. The development of these curriculum efforts will have an impact beyond Oberlin. The faculty will evaluate whether these projects help increase student learning, and then package the ones that do for use by other institutions. As part of the AIRE, Oberlin College will hold a series of workshops with faculty from other institutions to disseminate what we have learned here, and to learn what others have developed. There will also be a series of workshops that will highlight students' participation in experiential learning at the College.

Being recognized for our accomplishments was satisfying. But we at Oberlin College, which has never been content to rest on its laurels, are especially excited about the future and the innovations the AIRE allows us to pursue.


Jan Thornton, associate professor of biology and neuroscience and director of the neuroscience program, directs the AIRE programs.