The Magical Alchemy of Swat Science Help Sessions

I am a proudly self-proclaimed “frequent-flier” at Alchemist and Catalyst sessions. Last semester, I spent several hours every Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday night at chemistry (Alchemist) and biology (Catalyst) help sessions. It started as something I felt like I had to do in order to keep up with my science classes, but by the end of my first year at Swat, I genuinely looked forward to the sessions!

At the start of freshman year I was surprised by how much my classmates’ knowledge varied in different subjects. This was especially apparent in my introductory science courses – Bio 1 and Chem 10. My only prior experience in chemistry was one course my sophomore year of high school that was shortened by COVID, so I came to Swarthmore with a very basic chemistry background. Some of my peers had taken several years of advanced chemistry courses in high school. Luckily, the Alchemist sessions did a really good job of bridging that gap! Those of us who needed a little extra help on our problem sets or labs, or needed a mini lesson on a concept about which we were confused, could get all our questions answered by “Alchemists,” students who had already taken the course and excelled in it. Depending on the night, there were typically between 5 to 25 students seeking help from about 3 Alchemists. During my second semester, my organic chemistry professor often came to our sessions as well to help answer questions— I was really impressed with this level of professor accessibility!

The Alchemist sessions really helped me academically, but they are also where I made some of my best friends! It sure is easy to bond while commiserating over the difficulty of a chem problem set! The positive experience that I had with Alchemist sessions during Chem 10 and Organic Chem is a big part of the reason I’ve decided to continue with the Chemistry  Department through Organic Chem II and Biochemistry even though these courses aren’t required for my prospective biology major. 

I felt pretty comfortable with the content in my intro bio courses since I had taken IB Biology in high school, but I struggled to answer test questions as my professors expected, even though I could explain entire biological processes. I found the Catalyst sessions to be very helpful with this. Catalysts explain how the professors want us to go beyond surface level explanation of phenomena, make inferences, and think deeply across topics, and then help us come to an answer ourselves. I even had a Catalyst offer to meet with me outside of the normal session to give some advice on a lab report I was writing.

Overall, I love how willing people at Swat are to help each other and I think that one of the best examples of that is the academic help sessions. Their main goal is to help us academically, but ultimately, one of my favorite parts is the community building that comes along with such a friendly, collaborative environment.