21st Century Science & The Facilities of the Future

Where is the practice of science headed?

The profound transformation of science during the past decade has compelled major changes in undergraduate science education. For example, the chemistry, physics, engineering, mathematics, and computer science background of life science students headed for research careers has been markedly strengthened to prepare students for new opportunities and challenges in their field. This reflects the reality that science is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary and new discoveries at the interfaces of traditional disciplines occur at an astounding rate. In fact, some scientists are no longer simply categorized as "biologists" or "chemists" or " physicists" because they address complex problems that cut across multiple fields.

The scientific research process is also changing rapidly. Life scientists, for example, increasingly use sophisticated instrumentation once found only in the domain of the physical sciences (e.g., synchrotron x-ray sources to determine three-dimensional structure, focused laser beams to manipulate single molecules, and functional magnetic resonance imagers to map activated regions of the brain, acoustical coupling devices for environmental studies). Computers currently play a central role in the acquisition, analysis, interpretation, and visualization of vast quantities of data from all fields of study and their role will only increase in the future. Technology must be incorporated into STEM education to enable students to understand current scientific research and technology's role in that process.

The way scientists communicate and interact is undergoing an equally rapid and dramatic transformation. Different kinds of data are increasingly linked and vast databases (e.g., Genbank) are queried daily by investigators throughout the world to design and interpret experiments. Investigators collaborate easily over large distances due to the Internet. Some of the most important problems in science are now tackled by teams of investigators working in concert, rather than by individuals working in isolated laboratories. New scientific communities are emerging and facilities and departments must accommodate these communities.

These profound changes in the nature of scientific discovery and research compel a major transformation of undergraduate science education. For example: life science majors need a strong foundation in the physical sciences and mathematics to prepare them for interdisciplinary research opportunities. Environmental science students must be exceptionally grounded in the physical sciences and mathematics to analyze the complexities of ecosystems and their interaction with urban environments. Behavioral science and neuroscience will become intertwined as the linkages between the brain and behavior are unraveled and physics students need to be well versed in computational sciences and software engineering.

Where is undergraduate science learning headed?

Just as science is becoming more interdisciplinary, so must undergraduate science education. Science courses must focus on processes and ways of thinking far more than the current practice of presenting countless "bits" of data for students to ingest and subsequently regurgitate. If one considers that the field of genetics doubles in the amount of detailed knowledge available every 2.5 years, one understands how a science curriculum in the life sciences could quickly be consumed by a singular theme. Every discipline must actively avoid curriculum getting bogged down with narrow themes.

Interdisciplinary lecture and seminar courses give students a realistic picture of how connections between different areas of science are made in research as well as how those connections are plumbed to advance knowledge. Because research is increasingly interdisciplinary, such courses must be available to students beginning in their freshman year. The goal of first-year interdisciplinary science courses is not to provide in-depth, hands-on experience, but rather to expose students to the broad range of interesting work being done at the interface of disciplines. Such courses serve a dual role: biology students, for example, would learn that mathematics and computation play an important role in biological research.

Furthermore, all students need hands-on experiences with experimental inquiry and research beginning early in their undergraduate careers. Their overall undergraduate experience should give them a sense of the power and beauty of science. Undergraduate research in collaboration with mentors will be the norm rather than the exception for future science education, and interdisciplinary laboratories comprised of teams of scholars/educators focused on problem solving rather than specific details of any given discipline, must evolve and take root at all institutions.

An example of an introductory course of the future: Students meet alternately in a classroom or a computer laboratory setting and computer simulations are used to illustrate use of the scientific process for interdisciplinary research. Class time is devoted to the exposition of mathematical models in life sciences, engineering, environmental science, neuroscience, etc. The computer lab involves hands-on experiences in which students work individually or in small groups on computing projects. Suitable topics are drawn from any discipline and easily integrated with tools and approaches employed in all disciplines.

Upper-level interdisciplinary courses provide further opportunities for sophisticated experimentation and analysis of cutting-edge scientific problems. On the Mechanics of an Organism, an upper-level course at the University of California, Berkeley, brings biology and engineering together. Engineering principles pertinent to particular biological processes are presented first, followed by incorporation of the biological concepts. Engineering and biology are nicely interwoven in subsequent explorations of the biomechanics of organisms, tissues, and cells.

Further, upper level courses bring teams of students together to solve intricate and complex problems. Each student brings a level of expertise within the framework of her or his own discipline and the team is dependent upon one another's expertise to address the problem at hand. Interdisciplinary research teams form the framework for future undergraduate research efforts on many campuses. The changing face of scientific study, discussed earlier, demands this be the case.

What are the implications for spaces for science?

The commitment to integrate research and education must play a fundamental role in the design of any new building. A building must create a research-rich environment that supports a curriculum steeped in investigation, where students and faculty work as partners in research and education. It must also take advantage of the interdisciplinary nature of today's science. It is not uncommon to find individuals with expertise in areas such as analytical physical chemistry, inorganic chemistry, geoscience, environmental science, population biology, and organismal biology forming teams to address critical issues at the interfaces of these areas. By "clustering" these individuals together, instrumentation pods can be shaped and placed effectively for individual and team use. This is one example of clustering effects that one might envision, but the conceivable list is as long as the imagination allows.

Too many science buildings on today's campuses uphold traditions of the past. On some campuses, science departments are housed in separate buildings; while on other campuses the traditional 'layer cake' approach to departmental ecology is maintained (chemistry on top, biology in the middle, geology and physics at or below ground). Little vertical traffic occurs in layered building and very little interaction between science educators and researchers occurs between departments housed in separate buildings. This campus structure tends to reflect a science curriculum that is isolated, fragmented, detailed and stale. This environment creates faculty that are one-sided in their scholarship and their teaching.

Effective facility designs serve 21st century goals as they:

  • result in a re-structuring such that departmental boundaries are blurred and lines of communication flourish
  • demand laboratories and lecture spaces that provide flexibility to accommodate evolving pedagogical approaches and promote cross-fertilization of ideas
  • require enriched spaces for communal approaches to research
  • require spaces for groups to interact as a community of learners outside of the traditional laboratories and lecture rooms
  • require community areas for celebration of achievement, of history of the institution and the history of science itself
  • welcome all individuals (scientists and non-scientists) into the science learning environment
  • promote growth in science because it provides not only the framework for science itself, but also serves as a catalyst for change
  • recognize that science is changing and our teaching spaces must incorporate these changes!

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