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

Challenges of the Future of Liberal Arts Colleges: Asking the Right Questions

Michael P. Doyle
Dr. D. R. Semmes Distinguished Professor of Chemistry
Trinity University

The questions that I ask and the comments that I make are based on my 26 years of experience in liberal arts colleges. I speak as an insider, but as one who has served on national and international boards, committees, and organizations committed to enhancing education and scholarship in undergraduate science and mathematics programs. I believe strongly in the vitality of our educational system, yet I am a tough critic of its complacency, distrust of scholarship, and discouragement on innovation. None of our institutions are immune to criticism. When the criticism is constructively delivered and accepted with promise for future change, we will find the world of our education better than when we entered.

This Symposium focuses on Challenges for the Future. I believe, to meet the challenges of the future, liberal arts colleges must, individually and collectively, consider some formidable questions:

  • How are liberal arts colleges unique in preparing students for pursuits in science and mathematics?
  • What is the experience of teaching and learning science and mathematics at liberal arts colleges today?
  • What are the needs of our students?
  • What are the trends in science and mathematics education and where will those trends lead?
  • Is our institution taking the steps necessary to prepare students for their role in the 21st century?

The process of asking, reflecting upon, and answering these and related questions will enable those of us concerned with science and mathematics education to confront the challenges of the future.

Asking the Right Questions

How are liberal arts colleges unique in preparing students for pursuits in science and mathematics?

There are two ways to answer this question. One is to consider the unique and distinguishing features of your institution, your department:

  • Is there a long tradition of science/math activity at your institution?
  • Are there faculty in your science and mathematics departments who have achieved national or international recognition?
  • Do your students, classrooms, laboratories, instrumentation, or library set you apart?

For example, little Alma College in Michigan has science facilities and instrumentation that would make most of us envious. The distinction brought to Haverford College with the election of Jerry Gollub to membership in the National Academy of Sciences is extraordinary. These kinds of distinction paired with the learning-friendly environment found in liberal arts colleges ensures a place and purpose for science and mathematics in the years to come.

Have you identified the strengths of your own institution, and have you established a program to sustain and highlight them?

A second way to answer this question is to generalize about the unique capacity of liberal arts colleges to graduate students in four years, to promote interest in science and math through "lean. Lab-rich" environments with an emphasis on discovery-based instruction, and to guide students into satisfying careers. This paradigm is derived from the traditional notion of liberal arts colleges as places with small class sizes, close student-faculty contact, significant curriculum initiatives, and research experiences for undergraduates.

Rather than take this paradigm for granted as we address the challenges of the future, we must consider whether, in fact, these qualities characterize science and mathematics education in the liberal arts colleges of today.

In the practice of the vast majority of faculty on these campuses, research is education, and the endeavor provides undergraduate students with their capstone educational experience.

What is the experience of teaching and learning science and mathematics at liberal arts colleges today?

Small classes provide students with more opportunity to experiment and encouragement for innovation. However, at the institutions where I have served as a faculty member, class sizes in introductory chemistry courses have ranged from 70 to 120 students with even larger classes in biology, and enrollments are increasing.

At the same time, class sizes in the humanities courses are often restricted to 30 students. Is there something about the interaction between faculty and students in the sciences that is different from that in the humanities? Often the answer to this question is "Yes, the sciences have laboratories where 30 or fewer students are engaged." Even so, in the individual discovery approach to science and mathematics instruction, a class of thirty students means 30 different curricula, and the diversity of interactions in the laboratory class begins to match those in a studio art class.

Faculty at liberal arts colleges teach lecture courses and, even more significant when compared with research institutions, teach the laboratory components as well. However, at many of our schools, laboratories are now filled beyond capacity, facilities are inadequate, and laboratory instruction is an overload on science faculty. Given these constraints, we need to ask ourselves if the quality of undergraduate laboratory instruction is better with faculty supervision than with graduate student teaching assistants?

The recent experience of foundations with respect to innovation in science and mathematics education reveals that significant models are being developed with greater frequency at Ph.D.-granting institutions than at liberal arts colleges. The award record of the Camille and Henry Dreyfuss Foundation's Special Grant Program, which receives significant numbers of curriculum-based proposals from both Ph.D. and non-Ph.D.-granting institutions, suggests that liberal arts colleges are not now taking the lead in curriculum innovation and developments (CUR Newsletter, March, 1993). The image that liberal arts colleges are "better in science education" is eroding fast.

Why is this? Liberal arts colleges, with small science and math department faculty, heavy teaching loads, and limited facilities, are often at a disadvantage in providing the time and faculty incentives to engage in significant curriculum innovations. Universities, where faculty sizes are three times greater and teaching loads are one course per term, have more flexibility in regard to allocating personnel and resources to new curriculum developments. This is not to say that there are no significant educational developments at liberal arts colleges. There are, as the record of some of the calculus initiatives and the development of microscale organic laboratories demonstrate. Indeed the Project Kaleidoscope case studies and Programs that Work identify numerous reform programs underway at liberal arts colleges throughout the country. Overall, however, the initiatives at small undergraduate institutions are not easily visible. Limited effort is given to their publication, presentation at national meetings, or distribution. The creation of video displays, software development, and interactive communication is more often found at universities than at colleges.

What can be done? There are potential changes on this front. The Pew Consortia established six years ago by the Pew Charitable Trusts provides a link between liberal arts colleges and research universities. If this connection can be maintained to provide a stimulus for innovation, with release time provided to faculty who lead curricular developments, liberal arts colleges could again take the lead in major developments in science and mathematics education.

Among all of the characteristic advantages of a science education at a liberal arts college, the opportunity for undergraduate research stands out as unique. Their successes in encouraging students to enter graduate school has been recognized formally since 1947 when the President's Scientific Research Board singled out select liberal arts colleges for their extraordinary productivity. Foundations and government agencies have provided support for research with undergraduates in a formal sense since the late 1940s or early 1950s. No other educational initiative has received such a continuum of targeted support.

However, at most institutions research continues to be performed as a faculty overload. How does one count the time spent on research with students? Furthermore, there is a fear that research may become more important to faculty. "Too much research does not serve the best interests of a liberal arts college" is a comment too often heard at undergraduate institutions. Yet, in the practice of the vast majority of faculty on these campuses, research is education, and the endeavor provides undergraduate students with their capstone educational experience.

In colleges and universities today, the attractiveness of the institution for the "best" faculty in the sciences those teacher/scholars who will bring national distinction is associated with the environment for scholarship that exists there.

Questions about the past and present lead us to questions focusing on the students and on the future:

What are the needs of our students?

Are our students prepared to make decisions, create new visions, or react to public commentary on science and technology? Will they know enough to question whether to keep or remove asbestos insulation from local schools? In the work-place, will our graduate encourage or dismiss a new technology because they can or cannot understand its function? What kind of education do our students need?

Let me speak in particular here about non-majors. In the 1950s and 1960s, many of our institutions offered Physical Science courses that provided students with problem solving skills and with a broad fundamental understanding of the general principles that construct the foundation of science.


Our goal is to maintain this excellence and to encourage the ongoing reexamination of advanced education in our colleges and universities. The scientifically literate society that America will need to face the challenges of the 21st century will require orientation to science early in lifre and frequent reinforcement. Because training cientists is a long process, we cannot quickly overcome shortfalls in trained personnel and should not react precipitously in allocating our training support.

Science in the National Interest
Executive Office of the President
Office of Science and Technology Policy

Today we offer instead a cafeteria selection of courses for those college students who are not science majors, giving them the opportunity to take the path of least resistance to understanding science. In place of "fundamental" science courses, students are now offered Nutrition, Astronomy, or Continental Drift to fulfill their science requirement; this is done with full approval of the academic faculty and administration. Coming at a time when pre-college education in science, especially in the laboratory, is tragically inadequate (as indicated by both international and national assessment) most institutions of higher education, including liberal arts colleges, continue the process of dilution and diminishment of science. Even when our students are required to take General Chemistry or General Physics, we must ask ourselves: does the course content stimulate them or turn them off to science? Is this what they need?

All students, science and non-science majors alike, must be in position to make critical decisions regarding healthcare, the environment, technology, and other prominent issues. In order for them to make informed decisions, they must be scientifically literate, meaning that they must possess a minimal understanding of terms and concepts, scientific processes, and the impact of science on society. Our graduates who fall below this standard for scientific literacy lack the information necessary to understand and participate in the public policy debates surrounding scientific and technological issues.

Our challenge, then, is not merely to produce scientists. In fact, the U.S. currently has an oversupply of scientists; what it lacks is a citizenry capable of making informed decisions, based on the knowledge of science, its language, its methods of analysis, and the principles that govern its applications.

What are the trends in science and mathematics education and where will those trends lead?

This is a critical questions for all of use at liberal arts colleges and for our colleagues at research universities.

During the past few years, virtually all colleges and universities have experienced increases in the number of students who plan to major in science, many due to interest in careers in the health professions. Institutions reputed to be "pre-med institutions" have experienced the most significant enrollment increases, but even those with a previously balanced distribution between students in science who intend to go to graduate school and those anticipating medical school have been affected. Just as the 1980s was the decade of the business/economics major, the 1990s will be that of the science major.

There is increased recognition that productive reform heigtens the enthusiasm of faculty and students for education.

In the face of vastly increased enrollments in the sciences, many colleges and universities are responding by reducing all-college requirements in science, by removing the laboratory requirement for essential courses, and/or by decreasing the number of credit hours of the science requirement. Faced with increased teaching loads and expectations for scholarship, science faculty are generally accepting these changes. Consequently, these colleges are graduating students who are less literate in science and technology than their parents, less able to understand the role of science in society and to participate as informed citizens in decisions regarding science, and more apt to accept pseudo-scientific solutions to complex problems.

At the same time, across the curriculum, boundaries dividing departments and disciplines are, or need to be, fading in order to accommodate a new set of burgeoning, complex academic areas. Thus, cooperation is becoming increasingly necessary between departments and institutions locally, nationally and globally. Our institutions should not only be prepared for these changes in curriculum and pedagogy, they should be instrumental in making such changes!

Is our institution taking the steps necessary to prepare students for the 21st century?

"Baccalaureate origins" became one of the most important issues in requesting science support in the 1980s, and liberal arts colleges used this criterion as a badge of distinction. However, with today's surplus of scientists, such productivity is not now a high national priority. What will distinguish our colleges as we approach the 21st century? What measures must we take to ensure our viability in the future: improved facilities and equipment? Pedagogical changes? Restructured curriculum?

The Fiscal Year 1994 Budget Summary of the Federal Coordinating Council for Science, Engineering, and Technology (FCCSET) Committee on Education and Human Resources states "The need for undergraduate curricula that reflects the latest scientific research is critical. Not only must information be up-to-date, but individual subject should be discussed not as discreet bodies of knowledge that bear no relation to each other, but as parts of an integrated whole." The FCCSET then set milestones that "by 1995, agencies will have supported activities designed to have one-third of all lower-division students participating in revitalized science, mathematics, and engineering education programs; by 1998, two-thirds of all students will be participating in these activities." Are your institutional goals in line with those of the Committee?

Few endeavors are more difficult and politicized than institutional efforts to change the core curriculum and, to a lesser extent, departmental efforts to change a major's curriculum. At issue is faculty independence, the protection of faculty size or interests in departments, and resource allocations. Yet at too many institutions and in too many departments, the curriculum for students has remained essentially the same for longer than the purpose of the curriculum can be recalled.

What are your institutional entrance and exit requirements? The science and mathematics requirement at most liberal arts colleges are less than or equal to three courses out of a total of 32. That's less than ten percent of the educational experience of most of our students. Even more disturbing, in order to make their institutions more attractive to students, some colleges substitute high school AP courses for college courses and, thereby, further reduce student exposure to science and mathematics during their undergraduate years.

Fortunately, there is increased recognition that productive reform heightens the enthusiasm of faculty and students for education. The recent NSF Calculus Initiative made remarkable impact on most college and university mathematics programs; just this year the NSF Chemistry Curriculum Initiative received more than 100 preliminary proposals despite limited funds. The increased interest and participation in Project Kaleidoscope Meetings further indicates that institutions are eager to develop and incorporate reform programs.

Hopefully, this wave of change will incorporate expanded opportunities in undergraduate student research and enable "science across the curriculum," a different version of what we began a decade ago with writing. Once we can bring science out of the lecture hall and into discussion involving philosophy, politics, religion, and literature, we will be educating for true science literacy and for the future.

Let me conclude with a call to action: if science and technology are to be integral components in the education of all college students, and if liberal arts colleges conclude that science literacy is a basic goal of their educational mission, then at least five conditions must be met:

  • Colleges must review their expectations for science literacy and design academic programs that reflect those expectations.
  • Science faculties must be convinced that teaching non-science majors is as important as teaching science students, though the method and content of instruction differ.
  • Non-science faculties must be convinced that efforts to improve science literacy do not jeopardize their position. Science, not just writing, should be able to cross the curriculum.
  • Colleges must secure the faculty, facilities, and resources to implement curricular changes that will improve the science literacy of all students.
  • Colleges must learn to work more closely with colleagues in other sectors to collectively prepare current and future generations for science.


Commitment to both teaching and scholarship combine in the undergraduate setting to provide first-rate education for students in the sciences and mathematics. With that commitment, responsibilities become opportunities; without it they become onerous obligations. Committed faculty members teach to increase their students "hands-on" connections to the sciences and mathematics. They view their own activity as professionals always with an eye to the impact such activity can have on their teaching.

PKAL Volume 1
What Works: Building Natural Science Communities

Science is the progenitor of change in society from economic competitiveness and communications networking to environmental protection and health care maintenance thus, the decline in science literacy inhibits change. Science literacy is a national goal, and liberal arts colleges have a unique responsibility and opportunity to lead the national effort.

Clearly, those of us at liberal arts colleges cannot take for granted our preeminence in science and mathematics education, nor can we expect our past accomplishments to carry us into the future. We must act aggressively if we are to remain a viable and forceful presence in science and mathematics education in this nation into the next century.