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Jim Richardson | Science instructor finds creative ways to help his students excel

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Exploring creative scientific work
Steve Stefanides' Independent Project 'Lab Group' at Wenatchee Valley College; from left to right: Natalie Kahler, Tasha Guatney, Steve Stefanides (faculty), Sue Kane (adjunct faculty), Gabe Stefanides, Laura Valaas. Not pictured: Kevin Whitehall.  

For over a decade, Wenatchee Valley College professor of biology and chemistry Steve Stefanides has used the college’s independent study course option to give students the opportunity to explore the reality of creative scientific work.

The mechanism is very simple: Within the larger context of his own research on DNA repair, students develop and pursue, over many months, a project that is appropriate to their interest, preparation and available time and effort.

WVC students so prepared have transferred, with great success, to schools such as the University of Washington, Pomona College, Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Penn State, Pacific Lutheran University, Western Washington University and Central Washington University. Graduate accomplishments of earlier students include achievement of the Ph.D and MD degrees, while more recent students are currently working toward these degrees, as well as towards the concurrent MD/Ph.D in the prestigious Medical Scientist Training Program at the University of Washington.

Stefanides has carried out this work through times thick and thin; with the improving state budgetary climate, this summer he was able to expand his work to a larger group of four students. He has also begun mentoring, to work as a scientific mentor herself, a new adjunct faculty member, Sue Kane, Ph.D, recently noted in The Wenatchee World as one of ‘Thirty Under Thirty-five’ making a mark in our region.

His inspiration for this work came from his own graduate school experience, where, in addition to having outstanding committed faculty mentors who supported him in his own training, Stefanides worked as a teaching assistant, then head teaching assistant, and finally as assistant director of the Stanford Core Biology Lab course. This yearlong course, which serves several hundred biology and pre-biomedical undergraduates at Stanford each academic year, puts a premium on the development of scientific creativity. The transfer and development of a similar approach with additional emphasis on success after transfer has been amazingly straightforward and fruitful at Wenatchee Valley College.

Stefanides observes that independent study students and their work energize his preparatory biology and chemistry classes. Students in these classes see their independent study peers really doing science, and they see the connections to their own coursework and the educational and professional pathways that are open to them through Wenatchee Valley College. They truly come to understand by seeing evidence of it every day that Wenatchee Valley College represents a wide-open, vital point of entry into the great higher educational system of our nation.

Jim Richardson is the president of Wenatchee Valley College. He can be reached at