O, u kno, jus chillin wit sum coral n stuf
We’ve had a few questions about the biology program, specifically, so I figured I’d take the time as a bio student to write up a post about life in the biology program at Bennington.
The first thing that I think makes biology at Bennington so special is the existence of discussion-based classes. Most classes at Bennington are discussion-based, but in the sciences, what that specifically means is that it allows students to learn to form their own lines of inquiry into the texts we read.
The vast majority of discussion-based classes at Bennington are based around completing assigned readings and then bringing that knowledge with you into class for debate and perspective. In biology, you’ll often be reading primary literature from scientific papers, so not only do you get a good sense of the class material, but you develop a sense of scientific literacy - for instance, this term I’m taking the class Neurons, Networks, and Behavior with my advisor Betsy Sherman, and in our readings we’ll read about neural networks and outputs before coming to class and drawing diagrams of these systems, discussing the experimental setups, and locating the readings within our knowledge of neurons as a whole. Discussing the material is vital to understanding how you, as a scientist, can develop your own experiments, questions, and discussions on whatever aspect of biology interests you.
Another part of science at Bennington that I think is really special is what’s called the ‘teacher-practicioner’ model. The teacher-practicioner model essentially states that all faculty must be actively working in the field that they teach - not only does this mean that music faculty are composing, art faculty are art-ing, etc., but it means that the science faculty are actively conducting research that is often directly related to the subjects they teach. Not only does this mean that the faculty are knowledgeable in the field they teach (obviously), but that they are often really excited about it as well. Speaking from experience, this makes a huge difference in the way classes are taught and the way discussions run. It’s fun.
This research is also a great opportunity to get involved. Betsy, for instance, teaches a coral reef biodiversity class every few years down in the Grand Caymans over Field Work Term (watch it here), in which students get SCUBA-certified and learn the taxonomy of coral reefs. Another example of this is in ecology professor Kerry Woods’ research into boreal forests as carbon sinks - as part of the Intro to Forest Ecology class every year, students learn to take species diversity plots of forest understories and the basics of taxonomy.
It’s really fun to be able to do grad-level research as an undergraduate, and there are plenty of opportunities to integrate the research you do in classes into your own personal research – which is something I’ve done with my research into ant coevolutionary and slavemaking dynamics, which I started doing in my Animal Social Behavior class and am continuing to do in my Neurons class this term. That research will eventually become part of my senior work, which is the culminating work of every Bennington student’s experience here.
That brings up the final thing I want to mention about biology (and science in general) at Bennington. One aspect of a lot of the advanced classes (and some of the intro classes) in the sciences is that, for final projects, students are asked to design, conduct, and write up an experiment based on some personal inquiry the student has cultivated over the course and that is related to the coursework at hand. This whole process is incredibly valuable as a scientist – the process teaches you not only how to answer good questions, but how to ask good questions as well. That, I think, is the key focus of the science program at Bennington: learning how to ask good questions.
Anyway, I hope this was a good insight into life as a science student at Bennington. If you have any other questions about the science discipline, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!