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Getting to Know: Physical and Life Sciences

January 10, 2018

Wendy Jamison Wendy Jamison

College Relations publishes a monthly series of news articles, features and Q&A interviews highlighting various departments on campus in an effort to assist the faculty and staff in gaining an increased awareness about and understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities.

The January Q&A is with Dr. Wendy Jamison, Associate Professor and Chair of the Physical and Life Sciences department.

Q: How would you describe the Physical and Life Sciences program to someone who didn’t have any knowledge of it?

The Physical and Life Sciences department includes degree options in biology, chemistry, and geoscience. All of the degree options require strong skills in mathematics and analytical problem solving, necessitating hard work and dedication by the students. The faculty facilitates the transformation of students into scientifically-literate citizens, helping improve their ability to critically assess evidence and make informed decisions. This skill set is essential for not only our science majors, but for any student graduating from CSC. Students who complete a major in physical or life sciences can pursue careers in a variety of areas including the environment, wildlife, research science, health professions, and many more.

Q: The programs in Physical and Life Sciences have a well-regarded reputation – how does the department maintain that distinction?

Our reputation comes from our rigor and the success stories of our many accomplished alumni. We hold our students to high standards to prepare them for success after they leave CSC, intentionally building skills and content knowledge as they progress through our program. The best students are self-motivated and know that professors are there to help them succeed. They ask questions and lead discussions in class. They are active in campus clubs and often accept roles as officers in those clubs. In short, professors are there to help motivated students identify their future path, providing them the skills and knowledge to be successful in their pursuits. 

Q: How does a typical classroom operate for a Physical and Life Sciences student?

It’s hard to say what a typical classroom is in our department. Our professors use a wide range of techniques to convey material and engage students. Courses are comprised of lectures, class discussions, and learner-centered activities.

Active learning is used frequently in our classes, with students completing assigned reading and doing research before class. Class meetings are then used to reinforce the concepts or focus on the most difficult concepts. Students might be engaged in working together on small problems or larger projects. Students can work in groups, similar to what happens in the workplace, and present their results as a group.

Many courses are supplemented by labs, which further provide student opportunities for content synthesis and hands-on experiences with concepts discussed in lectures. Since these labs are taught by the departmental faculty, students have an opportunity to interact closely with the faculty member as they navigate the content of the course.

Some science “classrooms” are not classrooms at all, but online spaces. The geoscience program, for example, is available online. Students have the option of taking all their classes online if they live somewhere other than Chadron, or entirely in the traditional, face-to-face way. Most geoscience classes are taught in blended mode, with part of the students in the classroom and the remainder online. Students in both modes will often interact on assignments, and get to know each other through online discussions and other electronic means. Geoscience majors also get to know each other in an annual field camp, which is a required field activity offered each May. So while students learn much of the concepts and skills by reading and interacting in the online setting, they reinforce the concepts and build strong personal learning skills in the field.

Q: Due to the demanding coursework of the programs, how often do Physical and Life Sciences faculty interact with students and assist them out of the classroom?

Physical and Life Sciences’ professors are committed to the success of their students, and are more than eager to help. These meetings outside of the classroom are frequently initiated by our students, and sometimes requested by the faculty. The students visit with their faculty outside of class to ask questions, refine their study habits, discuss career paths, and even just to discuss life events. Our faculty are also highly involved on campus, so we encounter students at a wide range of events, campus clubs, and meetings.

Q: How are CSC’s museums and planetarium utilized in the curriculum?

The Eleanor Barbour Cook Museum of Geology and related fossil collections are used extensively in upper-division geoscience classes. Students in paleontology actively prospect for fossils, collect and prepare them, and curate them into the permanent collection. These students learn professional museum management skills and help build the college's collections.

The planetarium is utilized in our astronomy course to provide students with an unhindered perspective of the night sky so that they may become more familiar with the constellations and the vast cosmos we live in. 

The herbarium is used extensively as a reference for identification for student collections in Plant Taxonomy, and students utilize the herbarium to prepare specimens and to provide information for a species-based assignment. Other courses utilize bryophyte, lichen and fungal materials from the herbarium.

In addition to the curricular use, these facilities are available for public use as well. The Eleanor Barbour Cook Museum of Geology is open and available to the community during normal business hours and the planetarium frequently offers public shows, in addition to scheduling private shows for area schools and organizations. The herbarium is open during normal business hours with tours available by appointment. 

Q: What does CSC’s Physical and Life Sciences department offer students that other colleges do not have?

Perhaps the main advantage of CSC’s science classes is their small size, and how easy it is to get to know your professor. Student numbers are small enough that every student has a good chance of having individual conversations with their faculty. Students also support each other in and out of the classroom. The science building has open study spaces where students gather and work on homework together. Sometimes professors stop by and engage the students in conversation. This ease of conversation with the faculty extends to the online setting as well. Some professors who teach online classes have regular telephone conversations with online students that can be just as effective as a face-to-face conversation.

In addition, our faculty provide unique perspectives and learning opportunities as a result of their broad training and subject adaptability. We have several museums that house teaching and research collections that are used in the classroom. We also have a gross anatomy lab that features the use of human donor bodies for our anatomy-based courses, including providing senior-level students the opportunity to do dissections prior to attending professional school. These extras, especially when combined with small class sizes, allow for enhanced learning opportunities for the students.

Q: What are some gratifying moments you’ve had with students who are now in the professional realm?

The most gratifying moments come from seeing students who achieve success by participating in the career path of their choosing. It is gratifying to see how so many of our students have taken basic concepts and skills and are applying them every day in their jobs. The Natural Sciences Club invites two CSC graduates back each year to give a public talk and chat over dinner with current students. The life sciences program has often had alumni visit with current students either in person or via webinars.  These interactions build connections outside of academia, and make it easier to remind the students and the faculty of why we’re here.

Q: What are some opportunities students are offered in the Physical and Life Sciences department?

Our students have a variety of opportunities available to them, and the faculty are happy to help students pursue these opportunities. Students have the opportunity to engage in research in both the physical and life science programs. Several of the faculty have research projects available for students to assist with, often while earning college credit or getting paid. Students also have opportunities to develop leadership skills and become mentors or tutors for other students at CSC. In addition, students are encouraged to engage in shadowing opportunities and internships that will further help them achieve success in their chosen career paths. Truly, the opportunities are endless and the faculty are willing to aid the students in identifying and pursuing opportunities that are best suited for them.

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