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?
The two factors that will play the largest role in shaping undergraduate STEM education in the United States over the next decade are:
1. The application of genomic-level analysis in medicine and biotechnology.
2. National environmental and foreign policy, and federal budget priorities.
The advent of the genomic era, signaled by the completion of the Human Genome Project, brings a new front to the battle against disease. Genome-level analyses will enable researchers to discover currently unknown causes for diseases, and to design drugs that are effective in combating them. Huge amounts of genetic data are ready to be analyzed, but the new discipline of “systems biology” is only beginning to understand how to approach this task. As the tools of systems biology are constructed and refined, more data and analysis will be called for to elucidate the interplay of genetic, proteomic, metabolic and physiological factors at work in any biological process. STEM education will be impacted by the need to train students in laboratory practices for data production, as well as computational practices for data analysis.
The pedagogy in the disciplines of biology, chemistry, mathematics and computer science will have an increasingly application-oriented bent, so that students are more focused toward subdisciplines that are relevant to this task. The demands of biotechnology will have a similar effect on STEM education. In particular, the national push for a shift from petroleum to so-called “biofuels” will also draw upon genomic-level analyses, as micro-organisms are enlisted in energy production. The same kinds of data, tools and analyses will be needed as for medical applications, but there will be additional implications for the discipline of engineering, which will be responsible for commoditizing biofuel production processes. National environmental and foreign policy will be both the most significant factors in shaping the next decade of STEM education, and the most difficult to predict. Solving the consequences of global warming and pollution will require major advances and resources in science and engineering. It is also likely that the United States will continue to be embroiled in wars abroad and terrorist activity at home, which will require enlisting many students into technical disciplines. In this case, national fiscal policy, already strained by the retiring of the baby boomers, will favor the defense budget at the expense of fundamental research, and STEM education will focus less on preparing students for graduate school, and more on preparing students for technical practice.