By Catalina Righter
Before the champagne and river cruises that accompany graduation, every student at Washington College must complete a senior capstone experience (SCE). This could entail writing an essay, directing a play, or another form of practical application. Junior and senior seminars are transitional courses that help students prepare skills that they will need for their SCE and a future in their chosen field.
However, seminars are not standardized across different majors. The number of required courses and the seminar goals are different for every major.
Psychology seminar, for example, is only one semester long and is offered in the spring of every year. Typically a psychology major takes the class in their junior year. “It is a two-credit course which is taken on a pass/fail basis. There are a series of assignments that are due on specific dates, and to pass the course all assignments need to be completed,” said Chair and Associate Professor of Psychology Dr. Lauren Littlefield.
The Psychology seminar is mainly used to introduce majors to professions within psychology, to practice skills for their SCE, and “to clarify one’s personal plans for educational achievement and professional growth…in preparation for the senior year and beyond,” said Dr. Littlefiled.
Faculty rotate teaching the course each spring based on course loads and who wants the responsibility. John Toll Professor of Psychology Dr. George Spilich, who taught junior seminar in spring 2014, said the need for a junior seminar came to light from experience and assessment on the part of the psychology department. “At least a decade ago, we realized that we were not properly preparing our seniors for the SCE. They often got to a slow start, were puzzled about what to do, often did not get a rough draft done until January, and so some were not graduating.”
In order to address these problems, “[The psychology department] made [students] move along so that in September of their senior year they were on track to begin to work seriously. We made them create a post-graduation employment plan and research careers and so forth,” said Spilich
The goals of seminars for other majors are similar but the class structures can be very different. Some majors are required to take a seminar multiple years, like the biology major, or for two consecutive semesters, like the environmental studies major.
Within the biology major, students are required to take one seminar in the spring of their junior year and two consecutive semesters of a senior seminar which “[focuses] on ethical issues in biology, biological research, and career development. Additionally, it emphasizes biological discovery and the synthesis of knowledge and skills from previous courses in the major,” said Co-Chair and Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Mindy Reynolds. The class meets once a week for an hour.
Seminars generally are fewer credits and require less class time than the average academic class at WC.
The seminar’s objectives are to build skills needed in working with scientific literature and research as well as presenting their own conclusions to an audience. Similar to psychology, another goal of the biology seminar is “To help prepare students for their futures after college, by learning writing a resume and learning about career and graduate school options in Biology,” said Dr. Reynolds.
Rather than two consecutive semesters, environmental studies majors are required to take two seminar courses, one in their junior year and one in their senior year according to the WC website.
Some students feel that the senior seminar is more helpful than the junior seminar. Environmental studies major and senior Anna Youngk said, “Our seminar is not at all time consuming and has been helpful for me as I start my SCE…As opposed to our junior seminar, it seems that the senior seminar focuses on resources that are important and relevant to our needs for our SCEs.”
Other majors require students to participate actively in co-curricular activities on campus. The drama major requires students to participate in two work calls per faculty show, set strikes for all faculty-directed shows, one SCE work call (setting up the performance space), two SCE set strikes, and three ushering shifts.
One of the more strenuous seminar programs at WC is the mathematics and computer science seminar. “Students are required to make oral presentations at seminars and to write detailed papers and reports for regular classes and for their senior capstone projects,” according to the Math and Computer Science page of the WC website. Once they have declared their major, students in mathmatics or computer science are required to take a seminar each year.
“Some people hold off before declaring their majors because they want to avoid taking the seminar,” said sophomore computer science major Alex Roberts. “But I didn’t because I think that they’re something valuable to attend.” Seminars are intended to make the transition into the SCE and the work world less of a shock.
WC professors agree. Dr. Spilich said that for the psychology department, “What we found was that with the head start of junior seminar, everyone graduated almost every year and the SCE was less of a terror more of an elegant intellectual accomplishment.”