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The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Creating community: tightly knit or loosely woven?

Posted by Melissa on August 7, 2008

[This is a guest post by my colleague Melissa Eblen-Zayas, also of Carleton Physics and Astronomy]

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about community, and in particular the sense of community that develops among students in various academic programs. Two somewhat different things have triggered my thoughts— the first being an e-mail with a brief assessment of a cohort program in the sciences we piloted for this first time this past year at Carleton. This program aims to develop a cohort of students, all of whom are interested in math and science, but because of their backgrounds, these students may face additional challenges in their entry to science at Carleton. The goal is to create a supportive community that will help see these students through what can be a rocky transition and encourage them to successfully pursue their interests in math and science. The structure of the program is such that the entire cohort participates in a first year seminar their first term as well as a weekly colloquium that runs throughout the year. Students then chose to take additional science courses in both winter and spring terms, but because of diverse interests of the group, there is significant branching of the cohort after the first term.

I was involved in some of the early discussions about how to structure this program, and one of the challenges we considered was how to best support students when, after the first term, their interests lead them into a variety of different science classes. In particular, we don’t have large enough numbers to ensure that there are 10 students from the cohort in, for example, an introductory physics class. Rather there may only be two or three students. One of the things I feel is important is to make sure that the tightly knit cohort finds ways to connect into the other communities that exist in the sciences here at Carleton–the network of juniors and seniors who have already declared their majors, the informal groups that form during tutoring sessions, etc. Of course, these broader settings do not always provide a welcoming environment for students with particular backgrounds, and the cohort program is a response to some of these challenges. Providing tightly knit support for these students while still weaving them into the broader communities of science at the college is crucial, in my mind, for successful long-term community building.

The second moment that triggered my consideration of community came from reviewing data that my colleague Cindy Blaha received from the office of institutional research in conjunction with work on an institutional grant proposal. These figures showed the gender breakdown of various science majors since 1970. Needless to say, the data for physics, as usual, was discouraging. Sure, we do slightly better than the national average, but chemistry, geology, and biology are all nearly 50% women majors, while physics has averaged about 27% women majors over the past eight years. When these numbers come up, Cindy and I often talk about the students (both male and female, but perhaps more female) who walk away from the physics major stating frankly that they “want a life.” Of these students, some sub-group chooses instead to major in biology or chemistry. I am often puzzled by this sub-group because all of the sciences at Carleton are demanding, and I find it hard to believe that you can have any more or less of a life if you are a biology major than if you are a physics major. What is it about the physics community that is less than attractive? Wouldn’t being part of a close knit group of 15-20 majors be as attractive as being one of 50-60 majors in the biology department? As I’ve been thinking about it, I have begun to wonder if perhaps our physics community at Carleton is too tightly knit. Our majors (from my perspective) appear to enjoy working collaboratively with each other, spending time in Olin enthusiastically exploring physics, and also finding time for fun. But what if a student doesn’t want to wear as a badge of honor the number of all-nighters pulled in Olin or doesn’t want to cram his or her schedule with as many physics electives as possible? Is the biology department attractive because there isn’t a monolithic group of “biology majors”, but rather a larger, more loosely woven community?

I enjoy the tight knit community that we have developed amongst physics majors, faculty, and staff, but I want us to be more conscious of those who want to be loosely woven into our community. Tightly knit can imply insulation, while loosely woven implies breathability. In both cases, when a heavy weight must be borne by the fabric, the network of threads must share and carry the weight together. Both the tightly knit and loosely woven communities will come together when there is an especially difficult problem set to tackle, a challenging lab to complete, or comps presentations to practice, but when those weights are removed, not everyone wants or needs to remain so tightly knit within the community. This is a different challenge in developing a sense of community than the one that comes about with the cohort program.

As a faculty member, I can’t fully orchestrate the cohesiveness and communities that grow among students, but I can certainly do my part to make sure that loosely woven is still the fabric of a fulfilling community, albeit one that allows individuals more room to breathe and be themselves. After all, I don’t want to stand by while anyone feels like they are simply the frayed edges of the tight knit community. And hopefully, where students want to be included in the tightly knit community, but find it difficult to feel comfortable or successful for any number of reasons, individual faculty attention as well as organized efforts like the cohort program will help ensure a richly integrated community of science.

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3 Responses to “Creating community: tightly knit or loosely woven?”

  1. agm said

    I am often puzzled by this sub-group because all of the sciences at Carleton are demanding, and I find it hard to believe that you can have any more or less of a life if you are a biology major than if you are a physics major.

    I have to disagree. I know you’ve got good programs (my roommate is one of your physics alumni), but at the undergrad level all fields are not equally difficult. Getting a BS requires one to show that one is sufficiently adroit with the fundamentals, with implies that people can easily flee physics for something that doesn’t require so much blasted effort, not to master but to just barely approach competence. Mendel is simply not as hard to grok as Schroedinger, let alone Boltzmann, and he requires less math too.

    It’s at the graduate level and above, where original work denotes educational development, that every field gets that damned hard.

  2. agm said

    Which is to say I don’t think people are motivated the way you think they are to do this, so that you aren’t as likely to get the result you want by treating the problem you think you have. I think it more likely that they are telling you exactly why they are doing this.

  3. meblen said

    Certainly some students choose to major in a field that is easier for them based on their way of thinking or their interests. However, Seymour and Hewitt, in their studies of students who switched out of STEM majors (“Talking about Leaving”), found the performance and aptitude of students who switched were the same as those who didn’t. Rather it was academic environment and personal priorities that had more of an impact on students deciding to pursue or leave STEM fields. Hence, I think it’s important to continually assess environmental factors to ensure we don’t lose talented, enthusiastic students.

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