"Doing Something," Indeed
“What was the final project?” I ask Michelina Astle ’17, president of the Chatham Scholars Advisory Board (SAB). We’re talking about the one-credit “Dialogues” course that the Scholars take during their first year.
“Dr. MacNeil told us to do something,” she says.
“Do something?” I ask.
“Do something," she says.
This should have come as no surprise—self-determination has been a big part of the Scholar’s program, and it’s getting bigger. But first things first.
At the moment, there are about 70 Chatham Scholars. They come from all different backgrounds, and bond during their first year through a few "Scholars-only" courses, including an English course, a science course and the Dialogues course. This exposure to students from different academic disciplines is one of the things that Michelina, a psychology major, likes the most about the program. “My friends are studying English, biology, math,” she says. “We go to events together and hang out as a group.”
Some of those events are Scholars’ gatherings, like ice-cream socials, volunteering, and the annual trip to the Andy Warhol Museum-plus-dim-sum-or-Middle-Eastern-food. Figuring out what these gatherings are is the work of the SAB, and this autonomy is likely to increase.
“I’d like to place more power in the hands of the students,” says Assistant Professor of Biology Dave Fraser, PhD, director of the Scholars program. “Then I would serve as more of a facilitator to help them accomplish what they set out to do.” He envisions a sort of “Innovation Fund.”
“Rather than having me say ‘Okay, this is what we’re going to do with our budget,’ I want the Scholars to come up with ideas for what we should do with the money,” says Dr. Fraser.
“Students might say, ‘You know what, we need a course for students who are first in their family to go to college. It should be a one-credit course, open to anyone. You should fund this because it’s important to the University. Here’s what we need.’ Or ‘We want to put together a seminar to have Chatham graduates who are in grad school come back and tell us what it’s like. Here’s our proposal,’” he says.
“This allows students to say ‘Here’s what I did; I put together this proposal and got this money.’ It shows that they’re able to plan out and carry a project through. That’s valuable to have, not just on a resume, but it really does build problem-solving skills and their own sense of self-sufficiency," says Dr. Fraser.
Dr. Fraser also sees the Innovation Fund as being able to contribute to the social justice work that’s being done by Chatham students, both on and off-campus. This might look like providing funds to students who would like to work at nonprofits such as the Thomas Merton Center that aren’t able to pay interns that much. Funds could also be used to send students to conferences that they might not otherwise be able to attend.
Dr. Fraser teaches the first-year Scholars’ science course, ENV115: Shifting Environmental Paradigms. Over the past couple of years, he has revamped it to make it more relevant for non-science majors.
“I switched the course focus to be about scientific literacy—how to recognize bad data, and how bad science gets used to bolster arguments, whether on purpose or accidentally, which is something we see throughout the media,” he says.
Students choose a current debate in the news that has a scientific component, assess the stakeholders and arguments, and present their conclusions—in a video presentation. “They tend to do so much writing already,” says Dr. Fraser. “I want them to feel like they could be on TV, presenting information. A bit of empowerment, is the idea.”
Topics that students have chosen include the vaccination debate, alternative energy sources, whether video games are healthy or harmful, and whether it’s possible to end veteran homelessness. But the topic isn’t the important part.
“Gathering information, addressing themes that are important to society, and coming up with a way to evaluate the information—these are all classic liberal arts skills,” says Dr. Fraser.
After the first year, Scholars take two upper-level courses that have been designated “Scholars’ courses” though they’re open to everyone who has met the prerequisites.
“Before the start of every term, I talk with faculty who are teaching courses that I think would be good for the Scholars. I try to include as many disciplines as I can. They’re often in history, political science, art, and psychology, and they’re usually discussion- and/or project-based,” says Dr. Fraser. Around five courses per semester are designated Scholar’s courses.
Michelina took an upper-level English course called Food and American Identity with Assistant Professor Carrie Tippen, PhD. “I did a project with another Scholar where we studied the cultural impact of Martha Stewart and the legacy of the domestic goddess,” she says. In Maymester 2017, she will be taking her second Scholar’s course, Oral History, Neighborhoods, and Race in Pittsburgh with Assistant Professor Lou Martin, PhD. In the first week of the course, students read about and discuss topics like segregation, urban history, civil rights, and the African American experience in Northern cities, and in the second part, they conduct oral interviews of graduates of Homewood’s Westinghouse High School.
And then there’s the first-year Scholars Dialogues course. That’s a weekly seminar in which leaders are invited to give presentations on their lives and work and meet the Scholars. One guest speaker was then-Chatham-president Esther Barazzone, PhD. “I felt like that was really exclusive,” says Michelina, “that we got President Barazzone to give a presentation to our small class!”
And Michelina’s response to the “Do something” instruction in the Dialogues course she took during her first year?
“We did a dorm cooking demonstration,” she laughs. “We found that you could combine cake mix with light or dark pop and pop it in the microwave and have a little cake. We searched around for recipes that would work in dorm rooms, and thought about what else we could add to ramen to make it taste better. We had a sheet with tips,” she says.
For more information about Chatham Scholars, please contact Dr. David Fraser at 412-365-2961 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.