August 2021

Whether students are participating in summer research opportunities or immersing themselves in a lab, Minnesota Private Colleges have found creative ways to deepen their engagement in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. As a result, students continue to graduate ready to move into STEM-focused careers or pursue additional education.

Julie Bartley, professor of geology and environmental studies
Julie Bartley, professor of geology and environmental studies

One place that has transformed the STEM learning experience for students is Gustavus Adolphus College. Julie Bartley, a professor of geology and environmental studies, was a leading faculty member who worked on the $70 million expansion and renovation of the Nobel Hall of Science, which now contains 180,000 square feet of state-of-the-art laboratories and classrooms.

“I was the faculty shepherd—the interface between the construction team, faculty and students,” Bartley said. “The new Nobel Hall was designed with student learning in mind…we know that students learn science best when there is significant student-student interaction and student-faculty interaction, so we actually built our science laboratories to do that.”

One example of how the planners considered students’ needs are the first-year chemistry labs, which have down-draft hoods with clear plexiglass covers that allow students to see across the classroom. Faculty find that this helps students collaborate. The classrooms are also designed to encourage teamwork, from how they’re sized to the furniture that’s there.

“We simply have enough space to do the labs we want to do. Every lab classroom is handicap accessible, which means the aisles are bigger and people can move around. Having the space to do that makes the science more inclusive. The redesign of everything that’s more modern is really helpful,” Bartley said.

An important focus for the STEM departments at Gustavus is providing students with the resources to transition successfully into grad school or their careers. That is why independent research is a strong focus of the curriculum, so students can develop the research and professional skills to think as independent scientists once they graduate. Another way students are engaged is through working with faculty on their research.

Caden Gunnarson, Gustavus junior majoring in biochemistry, molecular biology, and computer science
Caden Gunnarson, Gustavus junior majoring in biochemistry, molecular biology, and computer science

Caden Gunnarson, a junior majoring in biochemistry, molecular biology, and computer science, is one of these students. Originally from Rogers, Minn., Gunnarson chose Gustavus due to the tight-knit small classes and greater opportunities for being involved in research. He took part in the college's First Year Research Experience (FYRE) program where his work currently focuses on using coding to help improve analytical processes and streamline lab work. He was recently named a winner of the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship.

“I really appreciate how the Gustavus curriculum is flexible with what I can do. I am a computer science and biochemistry major, and I don’t think I could do both if I was at a place with a stricter curriculum,” Gunnarson said. “What I’ve really taken away from studying here is the collaborative nature of science. I’ve been lucky to sit in on meetings with professors from different universities around the world, talking about their projects. I appreciate how it’s interdisciplinary.”

Gunnarson is conducting research this summer in professor Dwight Stoll's Analytical Chemistry lab. He had the chance to publish this research in a national scientific journal, The Journal of Chromatography A. When asked about what he wants to do after Gustavus, Gunnarson is planning on graduate school.

“My interests are where computers and computational resources can overlap with chemistry to provide new tools for data analysis techniques. Collaboration in the sciences is seen everywhere, not just between the heads of departments, but also student experimenters, which is great especially when you have a lot of questions because there is always someone who can help you out,” Gunnarson said.

For key facts about STEM degrees and Minnesota Private Colleges, along with examples from many of the institutions, see the following handout.

By Monali Bhakta