Course introduces students to honor-level study

First-year Honors students enrolled in Current Topics in Biology and Medicine, an honors inquiry course, wrapped up a two-part poster session this afternoon in Heuer Auditorium at Guion Science Center.

The students worked in teams researching topics and preparing posters using PowerPoint. They then alternated presenting the work to audiences that included fellow students, staff members and faculty representing a number of disciplines with an emphasis on the sciences.

The students were free to choose topics for research, which led to plenty of variety as well as vigorous classroom discussions over the course of the semester. Some were taken straight from recent headlines, such as childhood obesity and a March 2010 court ruling on the legality of patenting genes.

Others looked at advances in diseases that affect people in their lives including epilepsy and neurofibromatosis. The plight of the giant panda, conservation in Papua New Guinea, cancer treatment and several gene or genetics-related research areas also were among the topics examined.

The class sections, taught by biology professors Robin Davies and Linda Fink, required students to examine recent questions, innovations and discoveries in biology and medicine, considering both the scientific and social contexts. Their work culminated in the oral presentations.

Having an audience beyond their classmates and teachers adds an extra spark to the event, Fink points out, and it didn’t go unnoticed by College president Jo Ellen Parker when she visited the first poster session on Dec. 3.

“Presenting your work to an audience ‘cold,’ to people who are smart and attentive but simply haven’t been thinking about your topic for the last several weeks and who have not necessarily read all the same things you have, forces you to clarify your thoughts, focus on what really matters, and think on your feet,” Parker said.

Students also appreciated the format of the one-credit inquiry course, which is one of three similar discussion-centered classes offered as part of a new first-year Honors program. They’re designed to provide a foundation in critical and creative thinking across disciplines, engage students in timely issues or the research interests of Sweet Briar faculty, and to introduce them to scholarship practices expected in a sustained Honors course of study at Sweet Briar.

“I loved it because we led the discussion,” said Amanda Wager of Dripping Springs, Texas. “As long as we were semi on topic, even if there was controversy or it became heated, we went wherever our conversation led us. We were steered, but we were not interrupted.”

Some students were drawn to the course because they’re interested in studying biology or medicine, but many are thinking of pursuing other areas, including engineering and business. Davies said that didn’t seem to make a difference in class. “From the level of participation, I can’t tell which ones fall into which category,” she said.

Each fall, three or four inquiry classes will be offered for first-year Honors students to choose from. In addition to Current Topics in Biology and Medicine, this fall’s offerings were Historic Preservation in Virginia and Crafting People: Eugenics in America.

In the spring, the students choose among different three-credit Honors seminars, each of which build on the skills developed through the inquiry classes and further prepares them for upper-level Honors course work.