As of August, I am an Assistant Professor of Biology at Reed College. In this series of blog posts, I will explain why I chose this environment as my academic landing pad (or launching pad).
Part 1: I went to a liberal arts college, and it completely changed my career path.
This comment is not about Reed in particular, but about small liberal arts colleges. I went to one of these colleges as an undergrad, determined to be an English major. I took English classes, studied abroad in London with the English Department, and was well on my way to completing the required courses.
But something happened. I was encouraged to try out new disciplines. Like many other schools,* my alma mater offers an option to take a limited number classes pass/fail (“scrunch” them) and not have them count towards the students’ GPA. So I took introductory courses in religion (didn’t like it), psychology (fun, but didn’t want to take more of it), and, finally, computer science.
I don’t know why I chose CS. Despite the small class size and the fantastic professor, I was intimidated. After the first day I figured I would fail the class. After a few weeks, I was hooked. By that summer I was doing undergraduate research. And now I have a Ph.D. in Computer Science.
Without the encouragement to use scrunch classes in a small class setting, I would not be a computer scientist. I am surprised by my certainty about that statement. I knew that I liked solving puzzles and finding creative solutions, but I didn’t connect that to computer science. I hadn’t even connected that to science.
I am not necessarily on a mission to turn students towards computer science or computational fields. Instead, I hope to show students a new field of study that they hadn’t considered before. Students will be armed with new information to help them discover their academic interests. I think this is will be easier to accomplish in a liberal arts environment. Maybe this is unfair, since I didn’t attend a large school for undergrad, but it seems so easy to get “lost” at a large university if a student tries to venture out beyond their comfort zone.
*Some large public schools probably encourage this pass/fail option for select classes as well. It would be interesting to know how many students use it as a mechanism to try out different career paths.