Students STEP into Science
by Matt Getty
October 1, 2010
Professor Chuck Zwemer (right) introduces the human-performance lab to the first of three cohorts of STEP students funded by a National Science Foundation grant for the next six years.
Leodor Altidor ’14 pumps his legs up and down on a stationary bike, the blue plastic mask strapped to his face bobbing with his head and recording his every breath. Nine other students watch, their eyes shifting from Altidor to a monitor rendering his respiration as multicolored waves, and then to Associate Professor of Biology Chuck Zwemer, who explains it all.
“See how his oxygen consumption went way up as I increased the resistance,” says Zwemer. “That’s the gas law we talked about in the classroom. What you’re seeing now is a result of that equation we had on the board.”
This instance of science in action in the Rector Science Complex’s human-performance lab is nothing new at Dickinson, but for these nine first-year students and one sophomore participating in the initial Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Talent Expansion Program (STEP), it’s like nothing they’ve ever seen before.
“In my high school we really didn’t have anything like this,” says STEP student Ashley Young ’14. “I’ve never even heard of a lot of this equipment before, so it’s great to be able to get some experience with it.”
This summer the STEP students split into small groups to collaborate on four-week research projects with various faculty and upper-level students on everything from memory formation to local water quality. The program also provides the students funding for an eight-week research project in the summer following either their first or second year and an eight-week project at a major research university during the summer before their senior year.
Funded through a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), STEP seeks to increase diversity among science majors by recruiting students from urban areas into cohorts that attend summer enrich-ment workshops and research projects.
“Many of the minority students who come in with an interest in the sciences get through that first semester and just say, ‘I’m done,’ ” explains Associate Professor of Biology David Kushner, one of five faculty members who participated in the program. “Some of them make that decision because they want to do something else, and that’s fine. But there are a number who just feel like they don’t have the background or the tools or help they need, and they leave the natural sciences.”
Part of what makes them flee, Kushner explains, is the growing disparity between high-school science facilities in wealthy and low-income areas. While some first-year science students may have had plenty of hands-on experience with cutting-edge equipment, others—like Young—are seeing it for the first time.
Beyond introducing Dickinson’s labs in sessions like Zwemer’s and providing workshops on science writing, study skills and math, the program relies on two proven methods to help these students stick with a science major. The first is simply bringing them together in a cohort that meets regularly to share experiences and offer support. The second is experience with ground-breaking research.
“I think getting involved with research gives people a reason to study the subject,” says David Crouch, a professor of chemistry who led the effort to apply for the NSF grant. “It introduces them to what scientists really do. The students are asking real questions, and they’re looking for real answers.”
“Doing the research really helps you to understand the subject by getting the full experience,” says Michael Vecchio ’14. “It’s like reading the whole book versus just reading the SparkNotes version.”
Back in the human-performance lab Altidor slowly stops pedaling as the other students ask Zwemer about respiratory exchange and lipid metabolism. Zwemer answers their questions as he helps Altidor detach the black straps holding the mask to his face, but he saves the most important bit of information for last.
“This is just a taste of what’s coming,” says Zwemer as the students begin to leave for lunch. “What’s really cool is that all of this is at your disposal. In a few years you might come back and use this lab for your own research project. We’re giving you the tools by which the unknown can be addressed. You can use all of this to answer questions we don’t even know the answers to yet.”