PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
Jason G. Gillmore
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 believe that our nation, and perhaps the world, may be in the midst of changes of a magnitude similar to those of the World War II and immediate post-war (and Sputnik) eras. There seem to be fundamental shifts afoot in the economy, global & domestic politics, population & demographics, and global infrastructure and resources (human, natural, and material). These changes are extremely relevant to both the STEM disciplines and undergraduate education, and are likely at the root of more immediately tangible concerns of college demographics, research funding, and the preparation of STEM and GenEd students for their life beyond college.
Yet change occurs continually as well as in sudden increments. Only history is likely to settle whether we are in the midst of ongoing change or a dramatic revolution. Regardless of how history judges the situation, I believe there are certain principles that must guide my own personal role in undergraduate STEM and in STEM at large in the next decade. I believe that gradual and measured effective change, a fundamental focus on what works, and prioritizing excellence at what we individually do best must be the hallmark of our individual programs and our individual careers.
For some people and programs, this will involve rather dramatic pedagogical revolutions in our classroom settings, while for most it will involve careful and gradual implementation of proven strategies to make incremental improvements to the ways we teach a changing student body. At Hope, for instance, our organic chemistry courses still revolve around fairly traditional lectures and labs, delivered with excellence, but we are gradually incorporating the best of Peer Led Team Learning and Process Oriented Guided Inquiry in place of recitations, adding or improving multidisciplinary and open-ended experimentation and research-like experiences into the laboratory course, and constantly seeking to keep our departmental and college curriculum current, relevant, rigorous, and engaging. Focusing on core strengths means that Hope and many peers must continue to develop as national leaders in meaningful undergraduate research that is scientifically significant on the world stage, not just an essential teaching tool (though it is that, too, and as such must be made accessible to as many students as possible). This focus will involve ongoing and increasing excellence in our disciplines, but also substantial growth at the boundary regions. Interdisciplinary topics and approaches are essential in our era of change and must become intuitive and natural to the next generation of both STEM and GenEd graduates, while they can and should still be grounded in one or more fundamental disciplines. We must continually strive to conduct cutting edge research within and across disciplines, with our undergraduate researchers in the labs as true collaborators and intellectual partners in the process of both research and dissemination.
Equally important, we (as faculty, administration and students) must simultaneously communicate our scholarly achievements in an articulate and approachable way across a broad spectrum of outlets – in the best peer-reviewed disciplinary journals, in national scientific venues, to public and private funding agencies in grant applications and progress reports, in the local and national media, to our own classroom students (STEM majors and GenEd students alike), to our alumni, parents and friends, to our own colleagues and administration, to prospective students and prospective faculty, to our communities, to our elected representatives, and also to one another – the PKAL notion of sharing “what works”!
In essence, I believe we must not let our perception of dramatic change elicit a fear response that incites changes to STEM the sake of change alone or for the perception of “doing something about it”. Rather we must pursue careful and intentional growth in meaningful directions relevant to who we are, who we wish to become, where our core strengths lie, and what we wish for our full body of students to be able to achieve. If we are successful, STEM will look more incrementally than dramatically different and better in 2016, with a broad array of institutions each contributing their very best to a far greater national and global whole.