By Meredith Mikell, Upper School Science Teacher
In January of 2018, I had the joy of re-visiting Eckerd College, my alma mater. Nostalgia can be gloriously stirring; I recalled my own naive excitement as a freshman, arriving on campus with good grades and plenty of extracurricular experience, but I had little idea how to “be” a scientist. "No problem," I thought. That’s what my undergraduate years would teach me in preparation for graduate research.
My wandering mind was grounded with a single question from a former professor, “Have you heard that Eckerd students now get tracked into research as incoming freshmen?” This was startling to me as I began college with zero science research experience. Students are increasingly expected to come in with a practical skill set that serves both the professors’ research objectives and the students’ experience. And it’s not just expected at Eckerd. Other liberal arts institutions are picking up similar practices, as are many of the Ivy juggernauts. I later came across articles that confirmed this emerging trend: a piece in Inside Higher Ed titled “How Undergraduate Research Drives Science Forward” and a piece in Forbes titled “Why Research By Undergraduates Is Important For Science And Students”.
As an Upper School science teacher, I had to ask big questions: Are Canterbury students prepared for this elevated expectation? What should they be able to do as incoming freshmen? What research skills do I wish I had at the time?
Canterbury offers no shortage of practical science experience, both under the umbrella of the Marine Studies program and through the offering of unique electives and Advanced Placement coursework. In Lower and Middle School, they are introduced to scientific inquiry on marine collection days, seagrass transplants, various water quality testing activities, and much more. By eighth grade, many have conducted independent projects for the county and state Science Fair. In Upper School, the scientifically-inclined students choose AP courses that specifically cultivate a scientific mindset rather than focus on memorization. In offering such experiences to Canterbury students, we are consistently practicing teacher-guided inquiry.
Teacher-guided inquiry asks questions, and students must work to establish how to answer the questions, with gentle guidance. But without provided questions, a new skill set is required. Students need to feel comfortable asking their own scientific questions, and addressing how to answer them with the parallel guidance of faculty and peers. This is student-driven inquiry, and it necessitates an academic environment both inside and outside of structured classes that says, “You have an idea? Excellent! How can you test it? We can help you.” This year, Canterbury Upper School commenced two additional programs that seek to do precisely this.
The CASPAR program (Canterbury Advanced Science Program in Applied Research) kicked off the year with two students: Emily Wisotsky (‘21) and Joslyn Eliga (‘20). Both students aspire to enter pre-med programs in college, and CASPAR seeks to prepare them for undergraduate science research. Our two-year program starts with learning and applying research methods the first year; this currently involves a study on CSF athlete heart rate monitoring. In the second year, Emily and Joslyn will be paired with Eckerd College students working on their thesis project and shadow the entire process, culminating in formal presentations at scientific conferences.
Additionally, Canterbury Upper School now boasts a chapter of the Science National Honor Society. This organization will focus primarily on science communication: interpreting scientific findings, skeptical analysis of methods and conclusions, and translation of results to the CSF and the larger community. By acting as “science reporters” in this way, students are on the other side of the table - from being consumers of knowledge to translators. In doing so, they sharpen their own inquiry process.
Both CASPAR and Science National Honor Society are subsequently facilitating formal and informal projects around campus, including a taste survey proposed this past fall by a group of Juniors and Seniors. This study was born of intellectual curiosity.
When students feel empowered and capable of asking questions that require a deliberate, careful methodology to explore, they become the types of thinkers that college professors employ as researchers. They revel in ascertaining established fact from speculation, which they have demonstrated to me by turning one of the whiteboards in my classroom into an assemblage of unique facts, which are now also verified with source-checking. None of this activity is required, graded, or prompted. They learn the importance of source literacy and methods critique not for the sake of itself, but because it is immediately useful and necessary for them to achieve their goals.
As one of their science teachers, I am beyond thrilled to witness this process. They are increasingly becoming scholars of who know how to think, just as much as what to think, and they are doing so authentically. Canterbury science students are preparing for more than applying knowledge; they are training themselves to discover and challenge it.
Meredith Mikell is an Upper School science teacher at Canterbury and a winner of the Barrett Family Foundation’s Excellence in Science/Mathematics Teachers Award in 2018.