On August 19, a Sunday, 26 first-year students who’ve expressed an interest in pursuing science or math at Bowdoin began a six-day program to get an early, inside look into Bowdoin’s math and science community.
Forgoing the outdoors expeditions and community-service trips that most other first-years go on during orientation, these students stayed on campus to solve math or physics problems, write computer codes, explore river habitats or perform chemistry experiments. They also learned about Bowdoin’s academic resources, how to select classes, what to do to prepare for grad school, and more.
Geared toward women, students of color and first-generation college students — groups that are underrepresented in the sciences — the Bowdoin Science Experience, or BSE, is designed to give first-years a preview of the academic resources Bowdoin has to offer. The program is invitation-only, and the invited students have the option of declining BSE and, in that case, participating in a traditional orientation trip.
But many of the invited students see BSE as an opportunity to dive right into school and get their bearings before the campus starts buzzing.
“I wanted the opportunity to meet the science faculty here at Bowdoin,” Jepte Vergara-Benitze ’16, of Austin, Texas, said. “Now I know what I’m getting myself into and what I can expect from professors.”
Megan Maher ’16, of Chappaqua, N.Y., said she opted for BSE because it was a unique opportunity. “I thought it was a great chance to meet professors earlier and build relationships with them before the other 400 students came,” she said. “I can always do outing club trips or volunteer throughout the year.”
Prof. Patsy Dickinson, who is Bowdoin’s Josiah Little Professor of Natural Sciences, and Seth Ramus, director of health professions advising, created BSE seven years ago to give new students hands-on experience and focused support, to help them live up to their full potential. This year, the program was co-directed by Mike Danahy, a lecturer in chemistry and the 2012 recipient of the Karofsky teaching prize.
Too often, students interested in math and science become discouraged, particularly during their first year when they’re adapting to a new academic environment. Introducing students to campus resources, mentors and faculty before they begin classes has avoided potential problems and increased the numbers of students who stay in the sciences and eventually go on to careers in the sciences, as well as in medicine and related fields, according to Dickinson.
Part of the BSE week includes classroom experience. On Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons, the students split up for labs in biology, computer science, chemistry, earth and oceanographic science, physics and math. Their lab professors will also serve as their academic advisors.
Violet Ranson ’16, of Long Beach, Calif., signed up to take Prof. Daniela Oliveira’s computer science lab. Ranson said she wants to major in earth and oceanographic science, but appreciated the opportunity to get a taste of computer science before enrolling in a semester-long programming class.
Sometimes, this small snapshot of an academic discipline can shape a student’s college trajectory. Ivy Xing ’15, who participated in BSE her first year, said the program opened an unexpected door for her. “Before I came to Bowdoin, I had no idea what computer science was,” she said. “The lab triggered my interest in computer science, so I took Intro to Computer Science my first semester. … Now I am determined to be a math and computer science double major, in addition to pursuing a career in computer science.”
Participants in BSE are also assigned an upper-class mentor. Xing said her mentor was “the first person I reached out to whenever I began to lose my confidence. Without him, my first year would not have been the astoundingly maturing and enriching experience it was.”
For some, the experience culminates with a job in a professor’s lab. BSE Mentor Rachel Pollinger ’15’s BSE week last year led to a lab assistant position with Assistant Professor of Sociology Dhiraj Murthy. “It was so incredible to already be working in a lab during my first weeks of college,” she said.
Julia Gomez ’15, another BSE mentor and former BSE participant, said that besides learning about Bowdoin’s academics and resources — and landing a first-year lab position with neuroscience professor Richmond Thompson — her experience last fall provided her with some of her greatest friends. “Socially, it’s great, because you meet 30 other people, and mentors, who are interested in science,” she said.