Princeton’s toughest classes may not look the same, but that doesn’t mean academic rigor is suffering.
A year ago, a discussion grew about notoriously hard classes and how they were (or were not) evolving in the wake of New York University’s cutting loose organic chemistry professor Maitland Jones — who retired from Princeton in 2007 and is now an emeritus professor of chemistry — after students filed a petition claiming that his class was too hard. PAW spoke with students, faculty, and administrators to see how difficult classes at Princeton are being taught and found differences not only in engineering, but in organic chemistry and molecular biology. In each case, the expectations among students, and the responsiveness of professors to those students, are driving change in teaching and learning.
Across campus in molecular biology, Jodi Schottenfeld-Roames and Laurel Lorenz, both departmental lecturers, can relate to the importance of community building in science instruction. They teach molecular biology’s “core lab,” MOL 350, a required course for molecular biology majors during fall semester of their junior years (and select sophomores in the spring who plan to study abroad junior year). Intended to help students prepare for their senior thesis, Schottenfeld-Roames says, the class more generally shows students how to transition from textbook learning to research. “The mindset of the course is, what was the real process of science behind the textbook?” she says. Through studying the tracheal system in fruit flies, students learn how to ask a research question, how to read scientific papers, how to collect data using various lab techniques such as dissection, microscopy, precise gene editing, and how to write a research paper. “We want to ensure that every single student sees themself as a biologist,” she says.
How does the class accomplish this? Surprisingly, perhaps, by first focusing on community building. The professors form groups of three to four students who work together all semester. “We create diverse teams with diverse skill sets,” says Schottenfeld-Roames. She goes on to say that when she started, she received the advice that students should choose their own groups for comfort level. But, she says, “that was not ideal. It didn’t help all students in the course use the skills needed to effectively collaborate and develop as scientists.” Lorenz adds, “I think about group work in terms of leadership skills, and stress that skills like listening, critical thinking, and implementation are part of being leaders.” Students in the class speak highly of the approach. Says Victoria Merengwa ’24, “I loved the group work. Regardless of background, it was like, ‘OK, we are all in this together!’”
Early in the class, Lorenz introduces students to an assignment adapted from a 1950s National Public Radio program called “This I Believe.” Students reflect on questions such as: What brought you into science? What keeps you persisting, moving toward your goals? “This helps build connection and allows students to think about the unique perspectives they bring into the class,” Lorenz says. Schottenfeld-Roames has aimed to build connections outside of the classroom, with senior undergraduate course assistants for the junior core lab class and an undergraduate colloquium in which seniors majoring in molecular biology present their work. “Every time you talk about science, it helps. And it’s a no judgment zone. Every question matters,” she says.
Says Maryam Kamel ’23, who is a research technician in the department of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine at Columbia University, “Schottenfeld-Roames and Lorenz have built a community of molecular biology majors — I knew my cohort so well.” Says Jason Hong ’22, who is in an M.D.-Ph.D. program at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, “Before undergraduate colloquium, I had worked in two labs and never said a word in lab meeting. However, last year, I found myself actively contributing to discussions on various research projects and asking many more questions during my NIH post-bac research experience.”
The students learn to be scientists with assignments that teach them how to read and write and research papers, but, says Schottenfeld-Roames, “We recognize there are different learning styles in the classroom, and we give students different opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of the science.” For example, instead of an oral presentation that had to be in the classroom, students may now make a video of themselves standing in front of a chalkboard presenting, flipping through a PowerPoint presentation, or doing a live sketch, Khan Academy-style. “We also give lots of low-stakes assignments throughout the semester in order to provide regular feedback,” she adds. “The daily engagement forced me to keep up,” says Merengwa. “I had to do something every day of the week.”
And lest anyone bemoan any rigor that may be lost with a focus on community building, support, and accommodation of different learning styles, Hong says, “Everything I’m hearing as an incoming M.D.-Ph.D. student, I learned three years ago in core lab. We hear about framing a story in science — what do we know? What do we not know? We did that in core lab. It prepared me to think like a scientist.”
Read the full story in the November 2023 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.