Preparing students for an undergraduate science major

08/21/2012  |  with STEPHEN MURPHY
Helping Students Select Undergraduate Programs

SEEN spoke with Dr. Pat Owens from Winthrop University. Dr. Owens is the Chair of the Department of Chemistry, Physics and Geology and a Professor of Chemistry at Winthrop and holds a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

Winthrop University has an impressive approach to encouraging and preparing their undergraduate students — and prospective students — for a major in the sciences. Dr. Owens described that approach for us, specifically as it relates to their Chemistry department, and shared some advice for students looking to enter an undergraduate science program.

SEEN: What are some ways you recommend supporting prospective students?

Dr. Owens: As a school, Winthrop spends a good deal of time talking with students and, increasingly, faculty members have the duties of hosting campus visits by prospective students. Some of our faculty even go out to local high schools to do some outreach and even some teaching at those schools.

SEEN: What does hosting prospective students entail?

Dr. Owens: We sit down with students and their parents to walk them through what to expect in a science program – our focus at Winthrop is on undergraduate research so we examine what that means. We also discuss student outcomes – after our students graduate where do they end up, in terms of careers, graduate schools, etc.

The science departments work with our admissions department, and we make sure that prospective students get to meet with science faculty and with current students in the department to get different perspectives. They also go through our labs and see the facilities themselves. We put a great emphasis on this and work with admissions to create more opportunities to do that – this has to be a priority. Sessions are immediately followed by a lab tour.

SEEN: What kinds of questions do you hear most often from prospective students?

Dr. Owens: They are often interested in what careers they can go on to, what kinds of internships and research opportunities are available to students in the science majors. And of course they ask for more information about the coursework. We also often get questions about going on to graduate schools, such as pharmacy, medical, dental, veterinarian schools – what are the requirements, etc. There are very specific paths for Chemistry students post-college – PhD program, Health Professional schools, Master’s programs or going directly into the industry.

But I’d say the most prevalent question is about scholarship opportunities!

SEEN: What else do you stress with these students?

Dr. Owens: Students need to consider this: if they don’t get the opportunity to meet faculty members when they are prospective students, what will that relationship be when they ARE a student? The student-faculty relationship is so important at Winthrop and we stress that from the earliest point we can.

We talk a lot about the requirements of science majors – not only do students have to have a certain level of ability, but they also must have a tremendous work ethic to succeed.

High school students who are planning to enter an undergraduate science major should be taking AP science and math classes – their senior year of high school should be their most intense year!

We talk a lot about the adjustment from high school to college – this is a very difficult adjustment for most students.

One of the key elements that I encourage science students to look at: undergraduate research opportunities. We modeled our approach on what Furman has been doing for decades, which I think is the best undergrad research model. I believe that you learn science by DOING science. We find that student motivation improves, student interest improves. UNC-Asheville is another school that has a very strong reputation for undergrad research.

There is a quantum difference in science experience at an undergraduate-focused university, as opposed to large research universities. Those are better for graduate schools and graduate students.

Thirty percent of our majors are doing research all summer long. At Winthrop, our faculty members are here with students all summer long. Summer sessions are not a requirement for these majors but they are certainly encouraged. Students are paid to do undergrad research work during summer — and the university pays for dorms for students during the summers. Students are required to do oral presentations for faculty after they perform their summer research. So it’s not just doing the lab work, it’s also presenting it, learning about it, analyzing it... We are helping students develop into scientists. The summer is when you get that done — when they get the core of their work done.

All students should be asking, “what kind of undergrad research opportunities does the school have?” This is the most important thing that graduate school admissions departments look for when they review applications.

SEEN: How do you match students with the right program?

Dr. Owens: We try to match students with the programs that they will fit best in — we give a placement test to determine what program a student should be in based on their competency level when they enter the school. There are several schools across the United States that administer these tests — we use the California Chemistry Diagnostic Test (CCDT).

SEEN: Do you ever try to steer a student away from the sciences?

Dr. Owens: Not really — we tell them what courses they should start with — but, honestly, some of our best students start out their college careers as the lowest scoring. At Winthrop, we don’t have an “admissions by major” policy so we don’t ever tell students they can’t move forward with a specific major. We do advise students to look at two or three majors within in any college or university that you consider. Students often change majors. In fact, at least half of our graduates did not start their college education in the sciences or in chemistry.

For more information about Winthrop University, visit
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