Polaris Guides Science Students

  • May Aung '12, student coordinator of the Polaris Science Center, helps to put the idea of peer-to-peer tutoring into practice.

About 430 light years away from Earth, the brightest star in the constellation, Ursa Minor, remains nearly motionless at its spot above the north celestial pole. A useful directional-finding aid to humans in the Northern Hemisphere, Polaris—commonly known as the North Star—is a navigator's benchmark.

The star's namesake at Franklin & Marshall aims to provide guidance just as reliable.

The Polaris Science Center, a comprehensive, student-run tutoring program, provides one-on-one mentoring for first- and second-year students enrolled in courses in the sciences. Launched this fall, Polaris has established a collaborative program of peer-to-peer study assistance in biology, chemistry, mathematics and physics.

"There are many students who come to F&M with aspirations of pursuing careers in the sciences," says Michael Penn, professor of psychology and chair of the Africana Studies program. "They are willing to work hard but often are unable to make it through the first levels of sciences. We wanted to create a simple process to help those students who work hard to have maximum success."

Modeled on the College's employment of peer tutors in the Writing Center, the program employs outstanding science students who are recommended by their professors and are willing to help other students.

Joining Penn in designing the program were Alfred Owens, Charles A. Dana Professor of Psychology, Kenneth Hess, professor of chemistry and associate dean for health professions advising, and Katherine McClelland, professor of sociology. Several POSSE scholars and students of similar background and promise also helped to design and implement the program.

May Aung '12 is the student coordinator of Polaris. She helped establish the foundations of the center along with Justin Brown '11, Alejandra Fernandez '10, Jackie Liu '10 and Rukhshana Tuli '12. The students also came up with the center's fitting name.

"It's going really well," says Aung, who arranges meetings, distributes time sheets and sets up study groups. "The first day, a bunch of students appeared. The entry-level classes are really hard on people, and the whole idea is to help them with peer-to-peer tutoring."

In time, Aung hopes the program expands to include tutors in geosciences and psychology. Chemistry students, she says, seem to need the most help. "People really start getting in the groove of studying on their own by the time they reach higher levels of chemistry, such as organic chemistry," she says. "Before that, some people have a little bit of trouble finding out which study methods work best for them."

The program employs nine tutors, some of whom assist as many as three subject areas. Students receive e-mail messages on a regular basis directing them to the tutoring services. The program currently meets in the basement of the Bonchek College House, although Penn envisions a permanent physical location such as the Writing Center in the future.

"Why not link students with their peers to become better students?" Penn says. "They can receive immediate support as part of a collaborative process intended to empower them."

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