Occasional Paper II: What Works: Leadership— Challenges for the Future

A Response--Challenges of Change: Observations, Shibboleths, and Cautionary Notes

Robert L. Lichter
Executive Director
The Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, Inc.

Entitling a gathering Dealing with Success may imply a certain hauteur. It could presume that attendees believed that our efforts to make undergraduate science education effective for today's circumstances have succeeded. Discussion and exchanges during the symposium made clear, however, that the committed faculty and administrators in attendance hardly presume this.

I am reminded of a saying: the enemy of "better" is "best." In the context of Project Kaleidoscope, this means that there can never be a point where undergraduate science and math education has reached its optimum effectiveness. Improvement will always be needed because everything changes. Students, the characteristics of science, ways in which science is applied to human needs all are in a state of flux; this is the nature of science. The process of examining how science is taught and learned has to be a continuous one in which all who are committed to advancing science have a stake.

Project Kaleidoscope recognizes that principle. Indeed, this Symposium was emblematic in that it encouraged conversations among the various stakeholders. It elicited strong statements of support from scientific leaders, of whom National Academy of Sciences President Bruce Alberts and National Science Board Vice Chair Mary Anne Fox are among the most articulate and forward thinking. It brought together people in positions ranging from college presidents to junior faculty, some with greater enthusiasm, some with lesser, but all at least prepared to listen to each other. And it reaffirmed how important it is for all stakeholders to convey experiences and to collaborate in bringing about change.


To a large extent, the Symposium avoided the quality of preaching to the converted. A number of speakers pressed attendees to challenge their beliefs and to identify what is truly unique about learning science at predominantly undergraduate colleges and universities. We were challenged to be clear on how curriculum accords with institutional goals and to know what the varied academic missions are and how they are defined. That research and teaching are not antithetical, but rather intertwined components, of education and learning, was conceptually reinforced time after time.

Symposium attendees were reminded, however, that increasingly progress and change have to recognize the range of constraints imposed by current and future realities. Education and learning come at a cost, whose payoff is likely to be in the long term and with a high degree of uncertainty.

Science and science learning do not operate in a vacuum, and we were reminded at the symposium that other constituencies need to be engaged. The variety of ways in which the larger public perceives science has to be acknowledged, appraised, and treated. The same applies to us as scientists. We may not believe that we are "just another interest group," but many potential backers do, and a self-perception that does not take into account political and economic realities is self-deception. Those realities must spur us on to greater self-examination.

Reflection on the thoughtful messages of the papers presented at the Symposium is important. Predominantly undergraduate institutions have long accepted as gospel that they are the most significant source of educational innovation in the sciences. Yet there is strong indication that, even if this has been so, "it ainĂ¢t necessarily so" now. Universities are increasingly active players in educational change, as they must be. Science centers and museums are also stretching the classical boundaries of science education. Undergraduate institutions must welcome these developments. A measure of this growth of interest is the rising fraction and success of science education proposals from universities and science centers for formal and informal science education that some funding agencies are experiencing. A number not enough but more than had been so of leading universities are also increasingly accepting the devotion of more time by top faculty to the non-research components of education and learning.

It is thus essential that undergraduate institutions not fall into a pit of arrogance and alienate natural allies, especially universities. That a single university faculty member ignorantly distinguishes between an "academic" and a "teaching" career is not grounds for generalizing to all universities, that would overlook the constructive attitudes exhibited by growing numbers of university faculty. The institutions of higher learning in the United States including the often ignored two-year colleges encompass an extraordinarily wide range of missions and make post-secondary education available to every type of student imaginable. It would be foolish and undesirable to expect the time spent on research at universities to change dramatically. The so-called "science watchers" who chastise the universities for their research emphasis miss the point: research and teaching are not incompatible.

More important than dwelling on an unproductive divisiveness between undergraduate and graduate institutions is the vital need in all institutions to identify the people who are the champions of change, and to create those who will become them. Plans, frameworks, revisitations, reinventions, and revitalization are all meaningless without the people who have the vision and drive to affect change. This will require building change into the fabric of faculty expectations and challenging conventional wisdom; it will require asking some hard questions.

For example, are predominantly undergraduate institutions indeed more effective than graduate institutions in sending students to graduate study in the sciences? Retrospective data based on baccalaureate origins and other indirect data would imply that to be so. But more revealing would be the fraction of students of the total number of graduates in a cohort who go on for graduate study. Not readily available, these numbers are harder to get. However, a preliminary survey of award winners among young chemistry faculty indicates that those who received their baccalaureates at undergraduate institutions do not dominate this group.

How do we know our students have learned? Have we educated them or have we trained them? To me, the objective of education is to ensure that students have a set of basic skills that allow them to take ultimate responsibility for their own learning, and to instill in students a love of, and devotion to, the process of learning so that engaging in it will be as much of a reward as the result. These are extraordinarily important issues because of shifting employment environments and opportunities, to which students need to adapt. Indeed, one can properly ask whether the raw number of undergraduates going into graduate study continues to be a valid measure of institutional achievement.

Furthermore, we need to be careful of taking too narrow a view of what we mean by "student learning." Different students, from different cultural and social backgrounds, may have different learning styles. One size does not fit all. In order to survive and progress, students of all backgrounds need to accommodate to common external realities, but getting to that point can be facilitated by calling individual styles of learning as strengths, not obstacles.

Just as it is easy to be seduced by facilities, equipment, and technology in the absence of a learning objective, it can be easy to be seduced by terminology: "research-rich," "research-driven," "discovery-oriented," "inquiry-driven." What do these experiences really mean? How palpable is the operational difference between a "research-rich" curriculum and a "research-driven" one? Do these terms continue to be meaningful in a time when students seem to be more constrained from traditional career expectations? Where does a commitment by a student to become an educator in the largest sense fit into these models? Some undergraduate institutions that hope to emerge into the more visible ranks of accomplishment are still not clear about the distinction between research and those learning methods that have the veneer of research.

Why do some representatives of undergraduate institutions caution that research may unduly dominate undergraduate education and detract from these institutions' traditional mission? While circumstances may require individual institutions to raise the question for themselves, there is absolutely no evidence for a broad trend. Quite the contrary, research funding opportunities are almost begging at the doors of undergraduate institutions. More importantly, the traditional mission is undergraduate-centered learning. Research fosters that.

There is an inconsistency here. If undergraduate institutions proclaim themselves at the vanguard of educational change, then why grasp at maintaining a particular manifestation of a tradition? I suspect these assertions reflect uncertainties about how to cope with both institutional and professional change. Habit and fear can be powerfully resistive forces, as can contemplation of costs. The challenge for an undergraduate institution pondering the prospect of strengthening undergraduate research is to start at a level that is consistent with the institutions history and tradition, and move through different stages in a planned and organized manner.

Indeed, where research is embedded in undergraduate learning, institutions have to be willing to include it in their accounting of faculty time and expectations. So long as research scholarly investigation that produces new knowledge and is subject to critical scholarly review is an activity that is superimposed on "normal" teaching expectations, it will never have the stature that its celebration as a method of learning demands.

That change comes at a cost of personal commitment and hard cash, as many Symposium presenters stressed, is indisputable. That cash is harder to get is equally undeniable. Academic institutions, especially smaller ones, will not be able to rely as much on external agencies for large-scale resources as in the past. Broader societal needs are placing extraordinary demands on smaller amounts of federal and state discretionary funds, and private funds will always be inadequate. Academic institutions are going to have to use larger fractions of their own resources to pay not only for sustaining change, but also to initiate it.

This is not to suggest that institutions should try to attract external support for affecting change. Quite the contrary, they should try even harder than before. They need to be more imaginative and skillful in how they tell their stories, more energetic in publicizing and attracting attention to their accomplishments, both as individual colleges and as organizations of colleges. They need to get to know science writers and reporters, whose role (as opposed to that of self-styled "science watchers") in creating an informed and supportive public cannot be overemphasized. They need to learn and get guidance on how to talk with them and with other journalists. Institutions need to invite them onto campuses, perhaps establish programs for them to take science courses, work in research laboratories, and generally experience the vigor of science and of the institutions in which the practice of science and the learning it yields take place.

Scientists and educators, including some Symposium presenters, have devoted enormous time, energy, and debate to the challenge of science literacy. Quite apart from the difficulty of defining that expression (and popular definitions based on command of a body of fact are highly unsatisfactory), emphasis has been overwhelmingly on the need for non-scientists to be literate. However, in an age when science continues to become more highly specialized and fragmented, it is essential that scientists themselves be scientifically literate. While lack of attention to this issue might be understandable at the graduate level, it is inexcusable at the undergraduate level. That period is the first significant opportunity to shape the perspective of emerging scientists about the entire enterprise including its ethical dimension even if they ultimately don't become scientists, but especially if they do. How else will scientists be able to argue the case for science in a public forum, as the public expects them to do?

As "best" is the enemy of "better," complacency is the enemy of change. Undergraduate institutions have an esteemed history of being focal points for change and innovation. But while some of its premises that underlay the earlier contributions of undergraduate colleges and universities still apply, many no longer do. The opportunity clearly lies before them to continue as leaders while mutually engaging with other players in facing the marvelous opportunities presented by the challenges of change.