WTF? Where’s the family in STEM?

The biology department feels like a family. This is something that resonates with my peers in Bio 2 as we munch on bagels (courtesy of Nicole, a professor) before morning lab, as we dispute “challenge questions” at Study Group Meetings, and as we gather for office hours in Sci Commons. Why does the bio department feel so friendly? And why don’t some of the other departments share this friendliness?

I am a freshman and have had my taste of some of the STEM departments: physics, math, chemistry, and biology so far. Bio 2 is my first biology class here at Swarthmore, and much of the experience has taken me by surprise.

First of all, the biology professors go by their first names. This felt strange to me, so I continued to refer to my lab instructors as “professor” until my friend pointed out that I was the only student doing so. I uncomfortably referred to my instructors by first name, wondering why they didn’t prefer the honorable term “professor.” But after a week or so, I found myself comfortable going to them for guidance. The first-name basis seemed to level us out in lab: the lab instructors were our friends, were there to help us, and not once have I resisted asking them a question out of fear that I should already know the answer. Furthermore, the professors refer to each other by first name, and often add on a compliment when introducing a new lecture. For example, Sara introduced our next lecturer, saying “my intelligent friend Liz will now teach us about biodiversity.” As a student, sitting in a packed Sci 101, or confused over a lab procedure, the friendliness between student and teacher and between teachers makes me feel comfortable and at home.

The approach to collaborative learning is just as comfortable as the first-name basis. The lecturer often reminds us about their office hours and encourages us to come, even if it is just to get to know each other. I go to office hours whenever I can and I almost never have a question prepared, but I find myself learning a lot just because of the way the professor structures their discussions. Students ask and answer each other’s questions, and the professor acts as a guide rather than giving us every answer. The SGMs are structured in a similar way. Contrary to other study sessions that I attend, where the student-teacher and/or professor must be beckoned over to your table in order to answer your questions, at SGMs student sit in a circle with a Science Associate, an individual who acts more or less as a student teacher, helping students understand topic from lectures. The circle-table set up, in addition to all of the great snacks, effectively establishes a collaborative setting for students. Firstly, the SAs are not intimidating because they actively and positively participate in the conversation and often draw from their own experience in Bio 2 in order to encourage the students. For example, when learning about Tyrone Hayes’ research on Atrazine in frogs, multiple SAs mentioned that he gave a talk at Swarthmore once, and that he was the most inspiring and energetic frog-enthusiast they’d ever met. Secondly, as a student I feel as though I am receiving more attention from the circle format in comparison to other study sessions where it not only requires effort to find a group of students to work with, but also to find a student teacher to help you with your problems.

So, why is the bio department the only department where I have experienced such comfort and collaboration? I have no objections to the other departments; I find every study session that I attend to be helpful. However I do think that the bio sessions and professors work together to form a sense of community that my other classes lack. For example, in chemistry “Alchemist” sessions, the student teachers sit at the front of the classroom and you must raise your hand in order to get their attention. This set up does not create the naturally collaborative environment that I find at the SGMs. In addition, in the bio department, the class set-up is such that the professors rotate lecturing about every two weeks, so I generally feel that I know the department better than the other departments.

A combination of factors make the bio department seem like a family, from the office hours to the study group meetings to the first-name basis. My question is whether or not the other departments should take after this model. Would the friendly model benefit students in other intro STEM classes? I think it might; perhaps less students would drop classes and perhaps more would register in the first place if they heard that Intro to Chemistry, for example, was as big of a party as Intro to Bio. From my own experience, many Swarthmore students get nervous about continuing in STEM classes because they know that it is hard and perhaps feel unprepared, unequipped, or unable. A friendly approach could help these students feel less intimidated and more supported. However, what is the danger to this friendly model? False advertisement, perhaps. I suppose the intro bio classes will remain a unique case of ultimate collaboration at Swarthmore (for all of you looking to fulfill a lab requirement, I highly recommend!), but it is interesting to think about how other STEM classes advertise themselves, enable collaboration, and support their students.


  1. Susan
    Thank you for this very generous testimonial! In my 27 years in the department and in the last 3 as its chair, each day I am more aware and more grateful for the work that every member of the department puts into their job. The inclusive atmosphere in the department comes from lots of conversations – in formal scheduled meetings, as well as in the hallways and over the lunch table, reading and sharing literature about student learning and pedagogy – about how we can best serve a diverse and energetic student body. Sometime we wonder if it is all worth it, if anyone notices and your article reminds us that first impressions matter. Our family atmosphere does not mean that we compromise our standards or reduce the rigor of our curriculum. But we love studying biology – in all of its facets – and we are happy to share what we love with students. To become co-learners and co-discoverers is what brings joy to each of us. It is not unexpected for faculty and lab instructors to be student-centered, but our 5 non-instructional staff are equally dedicated to student learning and building student confidence. Thank you for noticing and for taking the time to write about it. We also welcome feedback about how we can be better. Your perspective, especially at this very busy time of year, keep our spirits high and our motivation strong!

  2. I’m a chem major and I don’t think this is true of the department at all and I think you’re basing your opinions on the intro classes only. I’ve called professors by their first name and they always encourage us to go to office hours.

    I’m sorry about your negative experiences with the Alchemists. We don’t mean to make the workshops really formal.

  3. This piece is a poorly researched defamement of majors a freshman is no way qualified to evaluate. The “family” feeling of Bio 2 fades as soon as the snacks do; upper level bio is no different from the rest. The author has been wooed by the illusion of an introductory class with no real stakes; it might behoove them to come back in a few years and see if these impressions are still real.

  4. The CS department operates this way too. It’s one of the reasons I switched majors. It feels less competitive and more collaborative. And I feel like I’m valued outside of my grade in the class.

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