At the Core of the Future of

Science Education

In 2010, then Mellon College of Science Dean Fred Gilman embarked on a mission to transform the college’s undergraduate curriculum.

The goal? To foster a multi-dimensional undergraduate experience that would prepare students to be 21st-century scientists. To do this, MCS realized that it needed to prepare students to be successful in any situation, since much of the science, not to mention the tools and techniques, that they will be using in their future careers hasn’t been invented yet.

The result? The MCS Core Education, an innovative approach to science education that fosters student growth in four dimensions — scholar, professional, citizen and person. Over the span of five years, Gilman and a dedicated committee of faculty engineered a curriculum to holistically educate students, providing them with the skills and experiences they would need to thrive in the 21st-century scientific and social world.

The Core Components

The majority of students’ education remained dedicated to their training as scholars, allowing them to explore the depths of their major, engage in undergraduate research and take a broad range of technical courses across the university’s STEM disciplines, including engineering, computer science, statistics and computational biology, among others.

The biggest change was the emphasis on non-technical components. The Core introduced several new courses to develop students’ professional skills, imbue them with a sense of personal wellness and encourage them to be engaged and active citizens.

The first-year seminar course Eureka! acclimates students to the transition to college, helping them set goals, maintain a work/life balance and get to know their advisors and peers. Faculty and alumni also frequent class lectures to talk about what it’s like to pursue a career in science.

In the third-year, the PROPEL seminar course prepares students for the impending transition into professional life with lectures on science and society, business and public policy, along with interactive workshops on interviewing, networking and resume writing.

To encourage their development as people and citizens, students take the self-directed ENGAGE courses, focused on wellness, arts and service.

Graduating the First Core Class

After five years of design and four years of implementation, the Class of 2019 became the first class to graduate under the Core Education. As they prepared to cross the threshold from students to alumnae, four graduating seniors shared their experience.

Victoria Van Benschoten

Science and Humanities Scholar, B.S. chemistry, biological chemistry track, and minor in creative writing
How was your experience shaped by the Core dimensions?

I’ve seen the citizen aspect emphasized in the department through environmental chemistry courses. It instills this idea that we should be considerate of the ways that our work is impacting the world. It teaches us that even if something’s easier, it isn’t necessarily what you should do. When we design our own synthesis methods, it asks us to figure out how we can make sure we aren’t choosing super hazardous substances in our lab courses. I think the person aspect came from having professors that cared about us succeeding and would make sure we were okay. Professor (Stefanie) Sydlik has a bunny and she’d bring him in on exam days or bake us cookies for exam days and check in with us. Seeing that care placed on our own well-being made it easier to recognize that if we have a really tough week, we should ask someone to help us, or if we don’t understand a concept, we should ask for help instead of feeling like we have to do it all on our own.

How can Core help encourage people who wouldn’t be likely to do something to do it?

It’s easy to get caught up in “this is the CMU life that I’ve created for myself, this is what I do, these are who my friends are, this is what we do in our free time.” I think having the ENGAGE courses — and especially having them not in your first-year because after first-year people get more settled in what they are doing — it makes people, if they’re not already inclined to engage in those behaviors, break out of that rut and try something different.

Mehar Sawhney

B.S. mathematical sciences
How did Eureka! help you as a first-year student?

I thought Eureka! was an important course because as an incoming freshman it really helps you get to know the faculty and resources that MCS and Carnegie Mellon have to offer. My teaching assistant (TA) was Katie Hanson, and it was pretty cool to see how involved she was, how much she got out of her experience and how close she was with the faculty. I learned that it’s okay to ask for help in a class if you’re struggling, it’s okay to approach professors if we find their research interesting and that our advisors are really here to help or talk when we need them.

What skills have you gotten out of your education that will help you be successful after graduation?

One of the things they do in the Core Education is encourage students to talk to people already in their support circles — advisors, faculty, staff and other students in MCS from other majors. What I think you develop is the ability to communicate with people with very different backgrounds, experience levels and skills and to work together. In the workplace, I don’t believe there is anything more important to success than the ability to be able to communicate your thoughts across a large variety of people and that is an invaluable skill you get from doing all the PROPEL and the ENGAGE and the Eureka! activities.

Miranda Mlincek

B.S. neuroscience, Fifth Year Scholar
How did PROPEL help shape your professional skills?

In the first section of the seminar, we did elevator pitches with employers, and we got to practice talking about ourselves in these interview contexts, which was really helpful. There was an entrepreneur section where we had to go to the Swartz Center and participate in an event or a talk. I attended an event about nonprofit organizations. A lot of science students can’t see the bridge between what they do and entrepreneurship. We’re not all going on to be doctors. A lot of people will be working in the business world or the creating world. I gained a lot from those activities in terms of thinking in new ways and exploring my interest in non-profit work.

Is there an example of something you did through Core that made an impact on you?

I was a volunteer at a camp in Pittsburgh last summer called the Joey Travolta Summer Film Camp. We work with children with autism to create short films. It was impactful to see people meeting others who share some of their experiences, getting to be themselves and getting to work through some of their struggles versus being misunderstood, which happens a lot with autism. It was only after the fact that I decided to use the camp for my ENGAGE in Service requirement. It provided an opportunity for me to write and reflect about the camp in a way that I wouldn’t have otherwise. Writing the essay helped me think more about how it impacted me and how that experience informed my future work as someone who does research in autism and wants to be an occupational therapist. It also informed my Fifth Year Scholar’s project, which has a lot to do with providing resources for individuals on our campus with autism and individuals who face social isolation and social anxiety.

Cassidy Smith

B.S. physics, minor in computer science
How did courses like Eureka! and PROPEL contribute to your experience?

What I liked about Eureka! was that we had the recitations, which were small and had a TA and a professor mentor. That was a great way to get to know a professor and people from other majors who you were going to be working with for the next four years. In PROPEL, the biggest help was working on resumes. I think for me it was so helpful to see other people’s resumes. I realized there were things I wouldn’t have thought to put on a resume, like a project. Since we exchanged resumes with people in our major, I could see what they were doing and get more exposure.

What Core Dimension do you identify with the most?

For me, it’s citizen. I’ve always been involved in one community or another. For my time here, it’s been the swim team and physics community. In college, you tend to be in this bubble of school and studying and you forget that there are other people out in the world. It’s important to give back. I wish all the colleges had a service requirement at Carnegie Mellon. For ENGAGE in Service, you have to do ten hours of service. I put down my involvement in the Special Olympics, which Carnegie Mellon started hosting in 2017. During my three years as a volunteer, I served as a marshal in the pool, making sure athletes are there for their events, making sure they got out of the pool okay and giving encouragement during the events; I helped give out the awards; and, this year, I was on the committee for the Olympic Village, which is an area the athletes can go to between events to hang out and have fun.

Lessons Learned

The Core Education has been constantly evolving over these last four years, says Ken Hovis, assistant dean for educational initiatives, driven by student and faculty feedback that has helped evaluate the impact the Core has had.

There certainly have been successes and failures. For example, the overwhelming reaction to PROPEL was that many of the lessons came too late. One of the biggest realizations for administrators was that “students are in very different places as juniors,” Hovis said.

“The ideas are super valuable,” Smith noted. “And it’s really great to work on your resume at any time, but for me, I wish what we were learning in PROPEL came sooner.”

This led to integrating professional development earlier, first in Eureka! and then in departmental sophomore colloquiums, allowing PROPEL to focus more on the transition to career through topics like job negotiations and budgeting.

The Core’s changing nature is also a reflection of keeping pace with the future of science education. Being adaptable and nimble is important, says Hovis, as science has become increasingly interdisciplinary.

“To solve some of the most complicated scientific problems today, you can’t do that alone. It requires skills from engineering, public policy, business and economics to make some of these things work,” Hovis said. “Giving our students the skills to be able to understand the interplay of some of these things is really critical. I think that was the heart of the Core.”

The Core stresses these skills by encouraging students to gain technical skills across STEM disciplines, and by introducing students to the ways in which policy, politics, environmental issues, ethics, business and more influence scientists and their work through the junior seminar.

“As scientists, we need society to fund us and trust us, and we need to communicate what we’re trying to do to better humanity. Having students understand that even if they don’t end up going into some of these other fields that they grasp how to communicate and interact with people in these areas as scientists.” — Ken Hovis

♦ Emily Payne