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Science professors explore how facilities affect their programs

Dordt College is already in the third year of its current accreditation by the North Central Association, but self-study reports and evaluators’ comments from the review prompted discussions about how to make sure that Dordt science majors continue to receive the strong science education for which their programs have become known.

Carl Fictorie

Carl Fictorie

More than two years ago, five professors in the science division attended a PKAL (Project Kaleidoscope) workshop to help them think about the needs in the natural science division. PKAL is an informal national alliance whose goal is to help colleges and universities create strong learning environments for undergraduate students in mathematics, engineering, and the various fields in science.

The PKAL organization focuses on “what works.” The team from Dordt College heard some things they already knew, but the workshop gave them an opportunity to reflect on a variety of issues related to science education, including how facilities affect the kind of education they can offer.

PKAL notes:

Dordt faculty, too, have found that more students today are visual learners, and that they look for ways to work together and build relationships, both with each other and with their professors. And faculty are finding that learning works best when it is done in community, when it is hands-on, when it makes connections between disciplines, and when it combines undergraduate teaching and student-faculty research.

To encourage community, PKAL suggests that colleges provide lounge/study space in science buildings. Dr. Carl Fictorie, who headed Dordt’s PKAL team, points out that informal lounge/study areas in Dordt’s newer buildings, especially the Campus Center, regularly draw students. After returning from the PKAL workshop, science professors tried to implement some of the PKAL suggestions in their building.

“Without such spaces, students come into the building only to go to class and then leave again,” Fictorie says.

Science professors found three areas in the science building and furnished them with tables, relatively comfortable chairs, and reference materials helpful to students as they study. They’ve been pleased with the results. The spaces are often occupied, and students drop by professors’ offices more frequently. Fictorie believes this more informal interaction is good for both students and professors.

Dordt faculty, too, are committed to hands-on learning—learning from creation rather than just learning about creation. The more this happens, the more the lines between classroom and laboratory have blurred. And to some extent the same has happened to some of the lines between disciplines of biology and chemistry and engineering as areas such as biochemistry and biotechnology have grown.

And at Dordt College undergraduate research is becoming the norm rather than an option. Research projects provide a good way to teach and mentor, say professors. We help draw students into the subject of the discipline; they keep faculty active in their discipline, and they build connections between disciplines.