The Compass Project is a self-formed group of graduate and undergraduate students in the physical sciences at UC Berkeley. Our goals are to improve undergraduate physics education, provide our members with opportunities for professional development, and increase retention of students, especially those from populations typically underrepresented in the physical sciences. Compass fosters a diverse, collaborative student community by providing a wide range of services, including a summer program, courses for freshmen and transfer students, mentoring, a research lecture series, and other academic and social support. Our efforts have been recognized by the American Physical Society, who presented Compass with the 2012 Award for Improving Undergraduate Education.
For many undergraduates, their first experience with Compass is an immersive summer program for incoming freshmen. During the school year, innovative courses in the fall and spring serve as continuations of the summer program, giving students a rich background in collaborative problem solving, model building, and data analysis – important skills that they otherwise would not be exposed to during their freshman year. In addition, mentoring and other support are offered throughout their college careers. For graduate students, Compass provides a unique opportunity to improve their teaching skills and a platform for effecting positive change on issues related to education and diversity in the sciences. Undergraduate and graduate students work together to design, implement, and improve Compass’s various programs, and learn many practical skills in the process.
Since its creation, Compass has grown significantly in terms of both its overall scope and the number of people involved in it. As we continue to grow, we work hard to stay true to the values that motivated the formation of Compass in the first place. The most important of these are:
Community is central to Compass’s identity as an organization. Whether it’s balancing academic responsibilities with other parts of life, feeling that you “don’t belong” as a scientist, or trying to persevere through times of low confidence, many of the challenges faced by students of science have little to do with what is taught in the classroom and yet can have a profoundly negative effect on a student’s ability to complete a class, or even a degree. This is of particular concern for students who don’t have family members who have been to college and who may not be well-equipped to anticipate and deal with these challenges constructively. Compass creates a strong, welcoming community in order to help confront these challenges. By joining a network of mentors, peers, and friends, Compass students find the knowledge and support they need to succeed in college.
Traditional physics courses focus heavily on science content (like Newton’s laws, conservation of energy, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle) but often fail to provide students with the opportunity to practice the methods of science (like asking and refining scientific questions, developing models to describe physical systems, conducting experiments to make measurements and test hypotheses, communicating results to others, and recognizing that mistakes are a an inevitable part of the scientific process). Compass’s classrooms focus almost exclusively on these critical components of scientific thinking. By doing science like real scientists, Compass students learn skills that can help them in their classes, their research, and their lives, whether they become scientists and engineers or pursue careers as artists, entrepreneurs, or politicians.
Diversity among the practitioners of science is essential at all levels because the unique experiences of each scientist contribute to the range of ideas within the scientific community. Compass strives to create a diverse community by actively reaching out to groups traditionally underrepresented in science, including women, people of color, and those who are the first in their family to attend college. We structure our classroom and teaching techniques to encourage learning regardless of our students’ backgrounds, and we educate ourselves about and encourage respectful dialog around issues of race, gender, and income in the sciences.