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Grant engages students in excitement of science

February 12, 2001

The Sherman Fairchild Foundation has awarded Lewis & Clark a $498,300 grant for scientific equipment.

“The grant will enrich laboratory courses for prospective science majors and will foster an appreciation of scientific inquiry among nonmajors,” says Gary Reiness, dean of mathematical and natural sciences.

The Division of Mathematical and Natural Sciences will use the funds over five years to purchase equipment that will enhance the existing curricula in chemistry, biology and physics and to add new laboratory courses in earth science and biopsychology.

Demonstration classes will turn into participatory classes, and the College will offer students more open-ended, discovery-based courses.

“Students learn best by doing,” Reiness believes. “At Lewis & Clark, we encourage students to ask their own questions, to design their own investigations under the guidance of their professors, to analyze the data and to evaluate the results.”

Here are a few ways the grant will engage students in the study of the sciences:

Physics

The physics department offers a popular astronomy course for nonscience majors. Each year, more than 100 students enroll in the course. They particularly enjoy activities that involve observing the skies through a telescope.

The grant will fund a modern, research-quality telescope.

“Instead of reading about astronomical objects in textbooks, our students will be able to observe them directly,” says Stephen Tufte, assistant professor of physics.

The computer-controlled telescope will be coupled to an electronic camera that will allow the students to acquire digital images of stars and galaxies.

The students will analyze these images to make significant measurements of the physical universe. For example, in one project, these students will use their data to measure the temperature, spectral type and distance to several bright stars.

In another project, they will use a diffraction grating spectrometer, coupled to the telescope, to measure the spectrum of a bright star. This will allow students to make an accurate determination of the stars’ temperature and will even allow students to identify the chemical elements present in the star.

“These exercises will give students a sense of how astronomers carry out their work,” Tufte says.

Physics majors will also use the telescope, filters and spectrometer to conduct research projects.

“We want to convince students that science doesn’t live in textbooks,” Tufte says. “It is all around them, and they can investigate nature for themselves.”

In addition, the physics department plans to use the equipment for weekly public star parties during the summer.

Biology

The Sherman Fairchild grant will provide equipment to enhance introductory biology courses designed for students who don’t plan to major in science. Such “gateway” courses can attract students to major in the sciences or to expand their understanding of scientific thought.

In Investigations in Ecology and Environmental Science, for example, students collect data in Tryon Creek State Park to research the effect of human activity on water and environmental quality. The grant will fund in-stream flow meters, oxygen content monitors, field spectrophotometers and hand-held Geographic Positioning Systems to help students conduct their research.

In addition, new dissecting microscopes will give each student in a popular course on Investigations in Genetics and Evolution an opportunity to conduct his or her own research on the inheritance patterns in Drosophila melanogaster (fruit flies).

The grant will also provide equipment for laboratories set up to study enzyme kinetics and recombinant DNA technology. Students will use the new laboratories in a new course, Investigations in Cell and Molecular Biology.

The department will also purchase laptop computers for student fieldwork.

Chemistry

Through the Sherman Fairchild grant, the chemistry department is purchasing a new nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer.

First-year students will use the spectrometer in their laboratory exercises to observe key bio-organic processes that involve phosphate transformations.

In addition, the students in organic chemistry will use the instrument as their “eyes and ears” to identify unknown compounds and to monitor the progress of their reactions.

The grant will cover the purchase of 13 PC-based UV/visible spectrophotometers that will be used in the General Chemistry laboratory to monitor various degradation reactions of organic contaminants in water.

“The strength of this grant lies not with the wealth of instrumentation, but rather with the fact that our first- and second-year students get to use high-end equipment usually reserved for graduate programs,” says Louis Kuo, associate professor of chemistry and department chair.

Environmental studies

“We want to connect our students’ deep concern for the environment with a solid foundation in scientific inquiry,” Reiness says.

“We have a strong and growing environmental studies program that requires students who are majoring in environmental studies to study biology, chemistry and geology.”

The grant will strengthen laboratory courses in biology, will provide equipment for field-based courses and will add new courses in the earth sciences.

Earth sciences

Last year, the College received a grant from the Mellon Foundation to fund a new tenure-track position in the earth sciences. The Sherman Fairchild grant will help equip the new geology laboratories that support the earth sciences program. A combination of dedicated field and computing equipment will give students first-hand experience with state-of-the-art methods of geological data collection and analysis.

For example, students will learn to install and download data from miniature data-logging systems that record environmental variables such as precipitation rates and temperature in Tryon Creek State Park. In combination with flow records for the creek, students will experiment with computational methods for relating precipitation to stream discharge and stream discharge to stream temperature.

“We live in this geologically dynamic setting, and we should take full advantage of that,” says assistant professor of geological science Elizabeth Safran. “The Fairchild grant will give our students opportunities to learn the techniques and tools of modern scientists in a spectacular natural laboratory—a precious educational experience.”

Biopsychology

Although the psychology department is not housed in the Division of Mathematical and Natural Sciences, many aspects of psychology are grounded in the natural sciences.

The Sherman Fairchild grant will equip new laboratories in physiological psychology and perceptual psychology to enable students to conduct research in physiological psychology, psychopharmacology and behavioral neuroscience.

Above: Paul Shin of Bruker Insturments works with Louis Kuo, associate professor of chemistry, to install a new nuclear magnetic resonance spectometer.

 

The Division of Mathematical and Natural Sciences recently received two grants totaling almost $1 million—$500,000 from the W. M. Keck Foundation for its computer science program and $498,300 from the Sherman Fairchild Foundation for equipment to enhance the teaching of science.

“These grants will make science more accessible and engaging to Lewis & Clark students,” says Gary Reiness, dean of mathematical and natural sciences.

“I’m delighted with the grants and am grateful to the Keck and Sherman Fairchild foundations for their support,” he says. “I see these grants as a strong endorsement of our natural science and computer science programs.

“The two recent grants add to the high praise our science faculty have been receiving for their work,” comments President Michael Mooney. “The division is a rising star in the world of liberal arts colleges.”

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