PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Suparna Bhalla

F21 Class of 2006 Statement

Suparna Bhalla is Assistant Professor of Biology at Mount Saint Mary College-New York.

Question: What will undergraduate STEM be like in 2016, given the urgency of new challenges and opportunities facing our nation?

We have to find ways to increase incentives for students to study critical scientific, math, and engineering areas. Early intervention is key to turning the attrition rate around. We know that math and science phobias start at the primary school level and are perpetuated in the undergraduate programs. Undergraduate STEM programs of the future will play a determining role in capturing and developing the innovative spirits of tomorrow. STEM programs in the future will have to transcend the perception that science is a collection of facts, technical jargon, and meant for the selected few who can master and manipulate numbers and facts.

These programs will have to convince students that science is a way of thinking that reflects a combination of facts, reasoning skills and analytical competency that can serve the masses and not a select few. They would emphasize the creativity in science and technology and focus on knowledge creation and the creators rather than just impart it. This would mean that students would have a more research-based curriculum where the development of critical thinking skills and finding new ways to answer a question would be just as important as the answer.

Inquiry-based learning would be the norm so students would take a more active role in their education. Thinking “outside the box” would be encouraged rather than repressed. Programs would offer interdisciplinary courses that would serve to integrate and provide an interface between the different areas of science. This would facilitate student appreciation of the complexities and interconnectedness of living systems. A greater effort would be put into the organization of events that fostered creative and innovative skills. Scientific achievements and endeavors would be celebrated with substantial grants and scholarships. This would serve to not only inspire and challenge students but also have them start feeling the satisfaction of rising to the challenge. Increased interactions between colleges, industry and governments via internships early in the program would serve to increase math and science awareness and importance.

Furthermore, every STEM program would endeavor to increase worker productivity by giving the students the opportunity to develop some technical skills and attempt to make good on the promise that more education means a better paycheck. Any successful venture depends on good marketing. The programs of the future would focus on the development of communication skills.

Current programs teach about the importance of communicating results in science but have remained elitists in their approach when talking to the general public. STEM students in 2016 would be encouraged to get out of the laboratories, use their critical skills within their communities and demonstrate the link between education and a sound economic future. Small classes run by well-trained teachers who are passionate about science and adapt their teaching methods to suit their audience would be critical to the success of programs.

Albert Einstein once stated “Everything should be made simpler, not simple”. This pedagogical change would not mean a compromise on rigor but an acceptance of the different learning styles. The role of the educators will adapt to include that of student mentor who will motivate students to fulfill their potential. The small class sizes would also allow for an easier tracking of students and facilitate early intervention in case of problems and thereby help to stem the attrition.

Post World War II, the U.S. has successfully faced three major economic challenges and will once again rise to face future challenges. The major threat is and will continue to be the sheer ambition of larges masses of skilled people around the world still making less than 10 dollars a day, who now have a chance to improve their standard of living in the global economy.

To answer the call of the future, the US will have to make fiscally responsible policy changes to education and immigration in order to maintain the delicate balance between attracting new talent and growing its own.