Skip to main content

Teaching Scientific Literacy

June 6, 2014

Amy Savage (Ph.D. 2010, Epidemiology and Public Health) runs the Citizen Science Program at Bard College. It is an intensive academic session held in January, between semesters. The program teaches nearly 500 freshmen how scientists think and what they do, with the goal of producing informed citizens. To make that happen, Savage coordinates a team of 25-30 Ph.D.-level faculty members plus staff and student workers.

According to Bard’s president, Leon Botstein, “This required program is designed to give all students the tools, attitudes, and motivation to use science and mathematics concepts in their daily lives — going beyond simple literacy to the development of critical abilities in these subjects.”

It’s a dream job for Savage. “From recruiting the best young scientist-educators in the country to developing impactful pedagogy and mentoring undergraduate teaching fellows and interns, each aspect of the program is carefully crafted to provide a rigorous but engaging experience for the first-year students,” she says. “I really enjoy communicating the joy I receive from my work to college students, dispelling their misconceptions, and letting them see why I find scientific inquiry beautiful. But more importantly, there are tough decisions that we will need to make that have a scientific dimension. This program is intended to develop skills that will help students become critical consumers of scientific claims. I am thrilled to be a part of shaping such an important program.”

Through lab work, computer modeling and bioinformatics, and problem-based learning, students confront questions like “How can we identify bacteria once we isolate them? What makes bacteria antibiotic resistant? How can we discover the cause of an outbreak? Why are there vaccines for some diseases, but not others?” Students also participate in educational outreach in K-12 schools to develop science communication skills.

Citizen Science requires partnership and close coordination with many offices at Bard, from the Dean of Students to Dining Services. “While my scientific and educational training qualified me for the job on paper, the ability to execute the core responsibilities of this office was a direct result of my time as a McDougal Fellow,” she says.“As a Student Life Fellow, I gained so much valuable experience. For example, I learned every aspect of planning and executing large events — from recruiting community partners to organizing physical space and catering, to developing the intellectual content and social aspects. I learned to manage, mentor, and lead a team to produce high quality programs on a timeline.”

Before coming to Yale for her Ph.D., Savage earned a BS from the University of Connecticut in pathobiology and animal science and a master’s degree from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, with research on vector-borne parasites of birds. After graduation she applied this training in Hawaii, where avian malaria is driving native honeycreeper species to extinction. Her Yale Ph.D. and postdoctoral work investigated Trypanosoma brucei, a parasite transmitted by the tsetse fly that kills both people and animals in sub-Saharan Africa.