LEARNING… WITH A TWIST: When Charlie Dobb ’12 signed up for a political theory class his first semester at Vassar, he went in expecting to sit in a crowded lecture hall while the professor lectured on about abstract theories. Boy, was he wrong.
Led by Sarita Gregory, assistant professor of political science, the class was structured around group discussions, and one of the first assignments was to visit local polls. “It was really impressive to have a small intro class and a professor talking about grassroots advocacy,” says Dobb. “She also encouraged us to discover our individual roles in the community.”
Last year, Gregory took this community engagement to the next level by starting the Dutchess County Citizen Action Network (DCCAN), a program designed to engage college students in the election process and address the nationwide shortage of certified poll workers. Supported by a $34,000 Help America Vote grant from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Gregory recruited over 200 students, including Dobb, from Vassar and other local colleges to train as certified poll workers for the 2008 election. Recently, she received another major grant to expand the program.
“I want this work to spark meaningful conversation,” explains Gregory. “Learning doesn’t happen just inside the classroom. It’s important to recognize that there are many approaches to learning, and I want to get them engaged in the community early on.”
This hands-on, head-first approach to learning is a common theme at Vassar. “When you have teachers who commit their entire lives to a given field and it’s their passion, they really take your work seriously, too,” says Dobb. “I never feel like my questions are burdensome, and professors always want to know what students’ interests are so they can address those issues in class.”
This way of teaching is also the norm in the sciences where students are encouraged early on to get involved in faculty research, working one-on-one with professors on real-world experiments. The Undergraduate Research Science Institute (URSI) has successfully paired faculty and students for 10 weeks of intensive summer research since its inception in 1986. Students routinely get the chance to present work at international conferences and to coauthor articles for scientific journals.
Maria Kern ’11 spent the past summer with David Jemiolo, associate professor of biology, investigating the genetics of breast cancer in canines. The project was the result of a partnership between Jemiolo and a local veterinarian who specializes in canine cancers. “Because of this connection, I got to visit a vet’s office where I witnessed my first surgery. I was encouraged to ask the techs questions as they spayed a dog,” recalls Kern, who credits this day with reaffirming her desire to pursue medical school. Jemiolo encourages students interested in veterinary medicine to shadow the veterinarians, and also invites them to continuing education lectures for area vets. According to Jemiolo, this program is batting a thousand: so far every student who has shadowed at the office has been accepted into veterinary school.
“The lab work is a really unique opportunity,” he explains. “When you problem solve in the classroom, it’s very different than problem solving in the lab because the lab is real life. It isn’t multiple choice; you have to be creative.”
This way of thinking also carries over into his classes. Kern says that, in one class, Jemiolo morphed from a biochemistry professor into a chef to explain the chemistry behind cooking. She also had a firsthand chemistry lesson over the summer, when he invited several URSI students over for dinner. “This made the class so much fun,” says Kern. “It’s so nice to be in small classes and be able to joke with my professors when I see them around campus. It’s important that I feel really involved in my classes.”