The Right Formula

STEM Majors at a Liberal Arts College? At Coker, It’s a Perfect Match.

The Coker College mission statement stresses a dedication to “academic curriculum based upon a uniformly excellent liberal arts core,” so it may come as a surprise that a large portion of our student body is made up of majors in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Despite the wide variety of large research institutions in the Southeast and nationwide, these impressive students chose Coker—and they are thrilled with their decision.

Keeping It Personal.

With a student body of just over 1,000 and 67 full-time faculty members, Coker offers STEM students an experience that simply cannot be replicated at bigger schools with higher student-to-faculty ratios.

“At Coker, I found there was a lot more connection between the students and the professors,” says Dylan Bates (‘15), who majored in mathematics and computer science. “I’d go to the professor’s office and we would have a one-on-one lesson right there...If I was struggling with any concepts or maybe starting to fall behind in a course, those one-on-one lessons were very helpful in getting back on track.”

Cameron Funderburke (‘18) has had a similar experience as a chemistry major. “I’m taking Chemistry 382 [with Dr. Gordon Brown] and there are only four people in our class,” he explains. “So we’re really close to Dr. Brown. He helps us learn individually.”

With complex material being covered, that kind of personalized attention can make a tremendous difference in a student’s level of success. “I tend to believe small class sizes are often the best,” says Dr. Peter Nguyen, assistant professor of mathematics. “With a discipline like math, it forces you out of your comfort zone because the spotlight is always on you to perform and think logically and critically.”

“It makes you less afraid to ask questions,” adds Nate Lemke (‘18), a chemistry and mathematics double major who came to Coker after first attending a larger school. “I never used to ask any questions, but here at Coker, I ask heaps of questions. It really helps with your understanding.”

A close-knit community in and out of the classroom also allows faculty to better understand individual students’ goals. “There’s quite a bit of flexibility to offer classes that students are interested in, rather than just saying ‘you have to take this and this and this because that’s what we have,’” says Dr. Valerie Granger, assistant professor of mathematics. “We try to tailor the classes we offer to student interests.”

Suzanna Mickey (‘18) has experienced firsthand the benefits of this customized approach to learning. With assistance from Dr. Jennifer Borgo Raia, associate professor of biology, she has been able to transform her biology major, ecology concentration, and mathematics minor into an opportunity to study flying squirrels. “Throughout the years, my personal interests have switched,” says Suzanna. “Dr. Raia has recognized that as I went through different internships and different opportunities throughout my summers...she just really knows what I’m interested in, and knows how to guide me to give myself the best opportunities and achieve those goals.”

Diving into Research.

For students working toward a career in the sciences, getting a head start on research in their field can be a gamechanger. Coker’s hands-on approach to education—particularly in the lab—gives undergraduate students the opportunity to pursue research that is open only to graduate students at many institutions.

Katie Chambers (‘19), a math and computer science double major, took advantage of this opportunity for her honors capstone project. Katie successfully secured funding and a 3D printer so she can research an inexpensive, customizable solution to structures that can be implanted into the human body, specifically vertebrae and discs. “We’re doing the scaffolding,” she explains, “which is what the [stem] cells would adhere to.”

Another student, Calvin Blaschke (‘18), has worked since his sophomore year with Dr. Joe Flaherty, professor of biology, studying fungal genetics. “I’d say a large part of my decision [to come to Coker] was finding a place where I could get into a lab and actually do some research as an undergrad,” says Calvin, who plans to start graduate school in the fall to earn his Ph.D. in biochemistry. “I found that smaller undergrad schools are actually really great for the sciences because, if you choose the right school, you have professors who have done research, good research, and come specifically because they want to train undergrads.”

Dr. Borgo Raia agrees. “One of the things I wanted to do, and one of the reasons I came to Coker, is because it allows us to use research as a teaching tool for the students and get any student who wants to do it involved,” she says.

And students aren’t limited to research that strictly pertains to their major. “They have lots of different options,” says Dr. Jessica Robbins, assistant professor of chemistry. “I have biology majors working with me in my lab, so you’re not confined. If you’re in biology, you don’t just have to work with biologists. If you’re in chemistry, you don’t just have to work with chemists.”

“Those opportunities are increasingly important,” adds Dr. Borgo Raia, “Either to help differentiate one resume from another, or just to have a feel for the opportunities that are out there and what aspect of the science you want to follow.”

In fact, the curriculum at Coker not only allows for opportunities in undergraduate research, it also places an emphasis on individual, self-directed research—and being able to discuss one’s findings. Both math and computer science majors are required to have three semesters of seminar, which is the equivalent of three minor projects. Seminar gives students the opportunity to explore something they might want to do in the “real world,” or something that isn’t being taught in the classroom. Students majoring in the sciences are required to do a senior seminar, which involves conducting research and presenting findings to faculty members. That kind of in-depth learning and experience in the lab provides valuable preparation for a student’s future career or graduate studies.

When Mandi Warner (‘11), an associate scientist with the biological research and development group at Syngenta, started graduate school at Southern Illinois University, she wasn’t as overwhelmed as she expected to be, thanks to her time in the lab with Dr. Flaherty. “When I went [to grad school], I had a lot of knowledge already that a lot of master’s students don’t start with,” she says. “I felt kind of ahead of the game as far as techniques and lab work go.”

“My last semester at USC, when I was getting my master’s degree, I had to perform research and write a master’s thesis,” remembers Dylan Bates. “Having to do [seminar] three different times with three different topics [at Coker]...really helped prepare me for what research on your own in graduate school can be like, and that’s part of the reason I think I was able to finish my master’s thesis and get my degree without many hiccups or complications.”

Developing Skills that Last a Lifetime.

One of the main benefits of a liberal arts institution is a holistic approach to education and the ways in which valuable, transferable skills are infused across fields of study. Presentation skills, for example, are stressed at Coker College—and you don’t miss out just because you’re not a communication major.

“I think the way we have [seminars] structured really gets students experience presenting in front of people, which is an important skill in the sciences,” says Dr. Granger. “ gets them experience doing things a little more independently, but still with somebody there to guide them. Those are all important skills, really in any discipline, but definitely in the sciences.”

Cameron Funderburke has already brought his experience from the classroom to the professional field. He has presented his research with Dr. Brown at numerous conferences around the country, including the International Symposium for Molecular Spectroscopy and the Southeast Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Charlotte, N.C.

Tiffany Taylor (‘20), also a chemistry major, started conducting research with Dr. Brown the summer after her freshman year and has presented alongside Cameron. “I want to go to graduate school in a pharmaceutical company where they’re able to create and discover different types of medicine,” she says.

“I tell my students they should practice their scientific talks by explaining it to their mother,” says Dr. Brown. “The International Symposium on Molecular Spectroscopy...I take students to that conference frequently...and they present there. And there are hardly any undergraduates that present at this conference. It’s almost all graduate students presenting, maybe a few professors.”

The ability to attend these types of events, and to receive guidance from professors as they begin networking and building professional connections, can be extremely influential in the lives of Coker students. That was the case for Whitney Wallett (‘11), a firefighter for the forest service of Kisatchie National Forest in Louisiana.

“I was stuck between deciding whether I wanted to do student services and go to school for that, or stick with wildlife science,” Whitney recalls. “Dr. [Borgo] Raia encouraged me to go to the Wildlife Society Meeting in Snowbird, Utah...That was one of those experiences that was like, ‘Okay, I got confused for a second, but this is definitely what I want.’”

Katie Chambers is thankful to have professors who are not only aware of what interests her and supportive of her research, but also eager to continue engaging her. “If they have an opportunity that comes up, they will push that your way,” she says. “If there’s an internship they feel suits you, they’ll push it your way...Your progression and your learning does matter to them.” And it is that dedication to students, to their learning and the outcomes of their education, that is so transformative for graduates of Coker’s STEM programs.

“[My professors at Coker] taught classes at such a level and in such a way that taught you...specifically how to learn, the most effective way to learn,” says Whitney Wallett, who went on to earn a master’s degree from Murray State University after graduating from Coker. “The way they pushed you and the way that they taught those classes, with the hands-on experience and reinforcing critical thinking skills...It was definitely a different perspective than what my peers had in grad school.”

“You can’t hide from us [at Coker],” adds Dr. Robbins. “I think a lot of students who probably would fall through the cracks, don’t. And a lot of students who maybe wouldn’t recognize their leadership abilities are encouraged to step out of their comfort zone….You really do have the opportunity to do it all if you take advantage of what we have to offer.”

Are you a Coker alum?