Charge for Natural Sciences Committee on Student Initiatives

Students today increasingly value transformational experiences and resources typically found outside the traditional classroom setting, such as research experiences, internships, entrepreneurship, career advising, community engagement, and development of communication and leadership skills. In many of our peer institutions and other Schools at Rice, opportunities in these areas are supported with resources and programs at a school or division level, with strong coordination with academic programs. When done well, the additional resources and economies of scale available with central support and overarching structures improve and promote the programs, which then become selling points for student recruitment. These types of programs also have a positive impact on diversity and retention in STEM fields. These trends apply to both graduate and undergraduate students.

Natural Sciences at Rice has much to offer in these areas. Most departments now offer first-year-seminar courses intended to serve as gateways to the disciplines and to provide exposure to research or real-world applications. There are also examples of highly successful programs providing students with outreach opportunities, such as BrainSTEM and Fun with Chemistry, and a popular seminar in science communication, NSCI 320/520. Most Natural Sciences departments have significant funds available for supporting undergraduate research with Rice faculty, and typically provide some level of advising for finding research opportunities within the department. Biosciences has an extensive program for connecting students with opportunities in other TMC institutions.

These offerings are substantial, but they appear disjointed, somewhat incomplete, and lacking visibility compared to programs such as the Engineering School’s Rice Center for Engineering Leadership or OEDK, the Gateway Program in the School of Social Sciences, or the HEDGE Program in Humanities. Another example is the Freshman Research Initiative in the College of Natural Sciences at UT Austin.

Should we increase our investment in and support of co-curricular programs? How can we best promote the great things already happening in the School? How can the departments learn best practices from each other? Can some of these efforts benefit from School-wide support and coordination? Would it be valuable to more closely coordinate co-curricular efforts with our standard curricular programs? A backdrop to these questions is the need to increase the number of majors in our undergraduate degree programs in order to make a strong argument for increasing the number of faculty in the School, and the need to increase the diversity of our programs at both the graduate and undergraduate level.

The Natural Sciences Committee on Student Initiatives is formed to consider this issue. The charge is to:

  1. Examine the programs in Natural Sciences for undergraduate and graduate students, with a focus on experiences outside the classroom and traditional degree requirements.
  2. Identify strengths and weaknesses and best practices in the School.
  3. Identify opportunities where new programs, expansion or coordination of existing programs, or central support or overarching frameworks in the School could significantly enhance the experiences and education we provide to students.
  4. Identify potential partners across campus and how we might work with them (e.g. Center for Career Development, RSTEM, LILIE, Center for Teaching Excellence, Center for Civic Leadership, Program in Writing and Communication, Academic Advising)
  5. Consider how the School and departments could more effectively promote programs and offerings outside the classroom, especially for recruiting graduate and undergraduate students.
  6. Produce a report with recommendations including small and large-scale opportunities.

Questions to consider. (These are draft topics for working groups.)

  1. Gateways to the disciplines: Should we formulate freshman seminars and gateway-to-the-discipline courses in the school into a coherent, School-wide program? Can we benefit from sharing best practices in our freshman seminars and gateway-to-the-discipline courses across the departments? What might that process look like? Are there other topics that should be discussed in these courses — Career opportunities? Communication? Ethics? Inclusive teaching and mentoring? Should we offer more substantive support in these areas in non-class format, such as regular workshops or lunch speakers? Can we provide information in traditional gateway courses (Phys 101, labs, etc. ) to promote non-course activities. Can we effectively use new FWIS courses to accomplish some of these goals? Should these gateway/freshman seminars connect to other resources on campus (see next question).
  1. Career guidance and more: Would our students benefit from more regular and systematic support related career skills and advising, for example through annual workshops, lunches, fairs targeting Natural Sciences, or curricular initiatives? Should specific offerings be developed for different populations, such as at each year through the undergraduate degree, and each stage of the graduate degree? Are there ways to better partner with or utilize resources in the Center for Career Development? In general, can our students and, by extension, our programs benefit from closer partnership at a School and Department level with other entities on campus like the Center for Career Development, the Office of Undergraduate Research and Inquiry, LILIE, Center for Teaching Excellence, Center for Civic Leadership, the Program in Writing and Communication and RSTEM? Should we put more effort into more strongly connect our alumni, friends, and advisory boards with our students?
  1. Undergraduate research: Would there be value added or any advantage from an overarching framework or support structure for undergraduate research opportunities within the School? Do we need to increase capacity for and expand access to quality undergraduate research opportunities? How might we do that? Should we invest in School-wide offerings in the summer for undergraduate researchers, such as for developing communications skills (figures, presentations, citation management), data analysis skills, program, research ethics, career or field survey, or community building? Would there be any drawbacks or hurdles to presenting our research opportunities and funding as a cohesive, School-wide program?
  1. Student groups: What is the status of affinity, outreach, and community-service groups associated with the School? Should we provide them with more support and encouragement? Would a Natural Sciences Ambassadors program be valuable? Is it important for us to encourage students to engage in certain types of outreach, such as initiatives designed to serve the community and/or increase diversity in STEM? Should we encourage the formation of groups to support URMs in Natural Sciences or in each department?
  1. TAs: Is our TA training adequate? Would some school-wide support or coordination of our TA training program be valuable? Would some shared curriculum be valuable, such as on inclusive teaching practices or grading/assessment techniques? Should we provide more substantive teaching experiences for graduate students who are interested in academic careers? Should we expand our use of undergraduates as TAs?

Questions that are common to all the topics include:

What frameworks for cohesive, school-wide programs and/or support structures might allow for more efficient use of resources and enable departments to offer additional or improved co-curricular programs? How might we improve visibility of programs? Should the School provide additional staff to support this?


The Natural Sciences Committee on Student Initiatives chose to focus on topics A-D. Topic E was also considered to be of great importance, and discussions on it will continue through other channels in the School. Substantive teaching experiences for graduate students is also something that falls under the purview of the working group on Career Guidance and More.