Stanford Today Edition: November/December, 1996 Section: On Campus WWW: Sophomore Success Story
By Diane Manuel
AS SHE WAITED FOR STUDENTS AT THE DOOR of her glass-fronted classroom on the ground floor of the Gilbert Biological Sciences Building, Pat Jones was primed for the start of Sophomore College.
Holding name tags in one hand and pumping a cheery welcome with the other, the chair of the biological sciences department chatted with each of the 10 sophomores in her seminar as they arrived with their university-issued white binders.
"I don't get to teach in small-group settings like this very often, so Sophomore College is a pleasure for me and one of my goals is to have fun," Jones told the class once they were seated at the seminar table.
"And for you, we hope to provide something to chew on, although you may not be able to digest it down to amino acids."
Designed to combat the phenomenon known as "sophomore slump," Sophomore College has just completed its second year. In the current format 10 students are selected for each of eight seminars, which meet for two hours every morning over two and one-half weeks in early September, before regular classes begin. In the afternoons sophomores learn about the resources that are available to undergraduates.
Last year there were about 200 applications for 50 slots, compared with almost 500 applications this year for 80 spaces, according to Todd Benson, coordinator of sophomore programs.
For Jones' two-week class on "The Crest of the Wave: Frontiers in Biological Research," she organized several field trips and also invited students to dinner at her home where they could chat informally with her husband, Bob Schimke, professor of biological sciences, about his work in cancer research.
As the sophomores heard about the other faculty members in the biological sciences department who had signed up to talk with them Ellen Macdonald, Virginia Walbot, Ron Kopito and Susan McConnell they exchanged amazed looks.
"I'd like you to meet a number of Stanford biologists who are doing a variety of research in 'hot' areas and get a sense of the excitement they feel," Jones said.
A brief hour into the seminar, the students caught her enthusiasm and began firing and answering questions as fast as Jones could construct red and green diagrams on the whiteboard. Discussions leapt from enzymes and hemoglobin to genetic mutation and molecular biology in an overview of topics to come.
One sophomore, who came to Stanford planning to major in pre-law or pre-med, said that largely as a result of the seminar she has shifted her focus of study.
"Now I would love to pursue an M.D./Ph.D. program which would give me an opportunity to work with students as a professor, with patients as a physician and with scientists as a peer," Vivian Tsai said. "These past two weeks have been exhilarating, and meeting and talking with scientists who are the tops in their field has been an amazing experience."
Returning Sophomore College faculty from last year included Ramón Saldívar, vice provost for undergraduate education; John Bravman, associate dean of engineering; Gail Mahood, professor of geological and environmental sciences; Condoleezza Rice, provost and professor of political science; and Robert Weisberg, vice provost for faculty development and professor of law. Joining them were President Gerhard Casper, professor of law; Anne Fernald, associate professor of psychology; and Jones.
Kwame Nkrumah Cain is one of the many success stories to emerge from the program. Last fall, in Rice's course on "The Fall of Communism and the New World Order," Cain played the role of president of the United States, trying to sort out where Russia belonged in the new world order. This month he is about to embark on two quarters of study at Oxford University, where he will work one-on-one with a tutor and be expected to turn out a 10-page research paper every week.
Like Cain, three of this year's five recipients of Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowships are graduates of the seminars, as are seven of the 25 students receiving Chappell-Lougee grants for undergraduate research. Another 19 juniors who attended last year's Sophomore College will study overseas this year.
"It is the greatest program I've had at Stanford," Cain says. "Getting a chance to ask questions in class and actually speak with a professor outside of class was a new experience that inspired me and opened all these doors."
Cain says the door to Rice's office is always open for her former students, and he credits his interest in international relations to the simulation exercises he was introduced to in her seminar.
Another Sophomore College instructor who takes a hands-on approach to studies is Mahood. Her students experienced "Living on the Edge: An Introduction to the Geologic Hazards of California" firsthand when they spent two days hiking through a hydrothermal area with steam vents and bubbling mud pots and camping by a trout-fishing stream.
"Their final project was a presentation on the outcrop which required each of them to become an expert in some field of geology," Mahood said.
For her course on "The Process of Discovery in Psychology," Fernald drew on her own research in language development to introduce students to the many ways in which psychological experiments can be designed.
She asked the sophomores to read Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct over the summer, and at the second seminar meeting they trooped to the basement of Margaret Jacks Hall to visit the "baby lab," or Center for Infant Studies, where they watched a video of 14-month-old infants responding to words and shapes projected on a screen.
"At the introductory level, students spend a lot of time in large classes where very complicated research findings often are reduced to a single statement that sounds absolute for example, that infants at a certain age are capable of perceiving speech in a particular way but they have no idea what is involved in trying to read infants' minds," Fernald said. "The point of the seminar is to do in a small group what we cannot do in a large class: get close to the research."
Across campus, in the white-washed conference room of Hoover House, Casper exhorted students in his "Constitutionalism" seminar to consider the "basic puzzle" of early American colonists who lived under the jurisdiction of both the British Empire and an autonomous local government administered by stockholders of the Massachusetts Bay Company.
The sophomores rapidly thumbed through the course reader in search of evidence to back up their arguments, as Casper thumped on the table for emphasis and called on individuals to respond to each other's questions.
It is that kind of intensive give-and-take with a senior faculty member that Sophomore Assistants Scott Bowie and Wendy Wright say they will remember most from Sophomore College. Both took Bravman's course, "Building the Future: Invention and Innovation with Engineering Materials," last year, and this fall helped to introduce a new class of sophomores to the fields of research available in the engineering department.
Wright, who decided to major in materials science as a result of Sophomore College, says she probably would not have found the small department on her own. But she was even more surprised by the interaction she enjoyed in the seminar.
"I was kind of shy last year and didn't feel very comfortable going to office hours," she says. "But talking with Professor Bravman in the seminar and getting to meet other professors and deans really built my confidence."
Bowie, a mechanical engineering major, said the small-group seminar format was a striking change from the CIV, physics and math lecture courses he took as a freshman, all of which enrolled hundreds of students.
"It definitely was the best thing I did last year," he added. "I think we'll look back 20 years from now and still remember Sophomore College." ST