Grant encourages minorities in sciences
In an effort to encourage minorities and first-generation college students to pursue a science major during their time on the Hill, J. Warren Merrill Associate Professor of Biology Andrea Tilden and the science department faculty created the Colby Achievement Program in the Sciences (CAPS) and are launching the program for the summer of 2010. The six-week program provides approximately 10 incoming students from diverse backgrounds with the opportunity to complete coursework and research that will expand their knowledge of biology, chemistry and physics prior to their first semester at the College.
Most of the funding for CAPS comes from a one million dollar grant that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) donated to the College and other undergraduate institutions across the nation to improve education in the sciences. Tilden and the other professors began working on the program about six years ago, when "this whole idea that environment and cultural and attitude plays a role in performance became increasingly apparent to the science faculty," Dr. Frank and Theodora Miselis Professor of Chemistry Whitney King said.
Colby Research Scholars (CRS), a current program started by Associate Professor of Chemistry Jeffrey Katz and funded by the National Science Foundation and President William D. Adams, provides underrepresented students with the opportunity to work in professors' laboratories year-round. CAPS expands this program by assigning students to faculty mentors before their first year at the College, with the expectation that students will continue on to CRS and maintain a relationship with the same professor throughout their college career.
"When you do research, you have a better capacity to learn the course material because you're seeing it in a different context," Katz said. "You [also] get to know other research students and faculty members in a context outside the classroom."
CAPS students will receive a $2,000 stipend for completing research with faculty mentors. "It's going to give them valuable contacts...so they have a hands on experience with science and someone to go to," Assistant Professor of Biology Joshua Kavaler said. He said though CAPS is not part of the job description, "We're all doing this because we feel this is an important thing to do."
The department hopes to see an increase in underrepresented minorities taking science classes, Associate Biology Professor and Department Chair Russell Johnson said. "At Colby and a lot of schools, the science majors tend to be less diverse than the College as a whole. If you look at science classes, it doesn't look like the United States in general. People look a lot whiter than the country as a whole," he said.
Tilden, who is on sabbatical this year, continues to work with the admissions office to recruit minority students from across the country that may be interested in joining CAPS. After students receive admission to the College, they must complete a separate application demonstrating their interest in the program," Kavaler said.
"We're looking first and foremost for an enthusiasm in science. It usually will include coursework, but it often includes extracurricular activities [such as] research projects...but that's not a requirement. It's amazing how far enthusiasm will take you, even without a background," he said.
Since many of the students may have lacked access to sufficient science classes in high school, Teaching Associate in Biology Tina Beachy will lead a class designed to "strengthen students' quantitative skills," before they enroll in introductory level courses in the fall, Johnson said. "[The course] is geared basically for the math involved in the laboratory and some of the problems that come up in chemistry...just standard math that we use day in, day out," Beachy said. "Most of the people coming in...may or may not like math per se, even if they really enjoy science." Minority students in a class of mainly white students often "worry that everyone is judging their race by their performance," Johnson said. CAPS' goal is "to build up social networks and social programs to help [students] come in and feel more identified with the science department." Or, as King said, CAPS' aim is "to lower barriers to student success."
The program will also help acquaint CAPS students from across the nation with their new home state for the next four years through outdoor orientation activities.
"[Arriving at the College] can be a challenge culturally because a lot of students from underrepresented minority groups come from urban areas, and Waterville and Colby is a different environment than what they're used to," Johnson said. Completing hiking and exploration trips will hopefully help students "feel more at home being in Maine."
Simply living on Mayflower Hill for six weeks will help ease CAPS students' anxiety before they arrive for orientation, Kavaler said.
"It will give the students a taste of college life before they arrive for their formal fall semester. No matter what sort of student you are, [college] will be a surprise, so I think that will be helpful," he said.