PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
F21 Class of 2006 Statement
Question: What will undergraduate STEM be like in 2016, given the urgency of new challenges and opportunities facing our nation?
I approach this statement from the perspective of a microbiologist educated in the field during the last 10 years, a time in which the field of microbiology has been revolutionized. The revolution I am speaking of is the advent of high-throughput genomic sequencing and the resulting technologies giving rise to bioinformatics, proteomics and metabolomics. This technology has led to the sequencing of hundreds of microbial genomes, enabling new levels of analysis and inquiry into the biology of microbes as it relates to evolution, ecology, engineering processes and disease. For the first time, microbiologists are able to ask global questions of evolution, apply true ecological population principles, rationally design microbes though the use of mathematical modeling and target specific properties of microbes predicted to be important in disease processes. It is a truly exciting time to be a researcher in the field and a teacher of this discipline to undergraduate students.
The challenges and opportunities that face undergraduate STEM education are embodied in the above statement. How does one educate a student broadly enough to grasp the large concepts in science and technology, while at the same time giving the student a sound, disciplinary-based education? Put another way, what does a student need to learn to be able to see the big questions and have the skills necessary to tackle those questions? How is the student equipped to know the limits of his or her knowledge and thus to seek the expertise of people in other disciplines to approach a problem? These are tough questions to answer, but they must be addressed in an effective way if we are to successfully educate the workforce and scientific consumer of the next generations.
The rise of systems level inquiry over the last 10 years in microbiology (actually, in biology in general) is a snap shot of our current climate. This is a developing field, one that is trying to find its way. What are the major principles involved? What is the best way to communicate between scientific communities that heretofore have been largely separate entities? How do approaches that are standard in certain disciplines adapt to current questions? What modifications can be made? What does not need to be reinvented? These are fundamental questions that any field founded in STEM areas will encounter. We need to educate students with this in mind. I feel certain that Systems Biology will be a large part of scientific and technological advancement in 2016, but even if I am wrong on this prediction, the fundamental issues of any emerging discipline will be the same. The participants will need to be able to converse effectively among groups of people with very different backgrounds and will need to bring expertise to the table.
In my view, it is the purpose of undergraduate education to provide the foundation upon which students will build in the future as they pursue post-graduate education in particular fields or technical training in the work force. How do we then proceed with undergraduate education in STEM? I'll use the field of biology as my example. In principle, I think the foundation of effective education is present now in many biology curriculums that expose the undergraduate to a liberal education within the field. However, we can improve efforts to establish for students the necessity of understanding principles from all STEM fields for the mastery of biology. What are the connections that must be made between biology and its supporting disciplines (chemistry; physics; mathematics, not limited to statistics; and computer science)? What are the most effective ways of making these connections? This type of questioning can be asked from the vantage of any of the STEM fields, indeed, they should be asked. I believe that successful STEM education in 2016 will have answered (or be well on the way to answering) these questions and will have implemented the answers. In this way, students will be equipped to adapt to and push forward the next revolutions as they occur.