PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
Katerina V. Thompson
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 coming decade will spur fundamental changes to our existing undergraduate education system, changes that are vital to sustaining our nation’s leadership role in scientific and technological innovation. Two specific developments that I envision are (1) a truly multi-disciplinary introductory science curriculum that eliminates existing barriers between traditional fields of study and (2) an increased emphasis on applying knowledge to open-ended, real-world problems. The intractable problems of today’s society demand multidisciplinary solutions, but our current STEM educational system inadequately prepares students to meet these challenges. The typical undergraduate curriculum requires students to spend their first two or three years taking an array of introductory science courses (biology, chemistry, physics, mathematics) whose interrelationships are rarely made explicit. Professors often assume that students will recognize the implicit interdisciplinary connections, but many students fail to appreciate these relationships and their value for addressing pressing societal issues. A better approach would be to teach science in a more fully integrated manner, with fundamental concepts presented within the context of complex, real-world problems. Ideally, this course would be taught by a multidisciplinary team of faculty, each with research expertise in areas that span traditional disciplinary boundaries. The course would more closely mimic the actual practice of science by eliminating a rigid lecture/recitation/laboratory schedule in favor of a more flexible format of seminars, demonstrations, experiments, and group inquiry. It would replace traditional fundamental science courses and serve as the common launching point for more advanced coursework in a variety of STEM fields. Transforming the STEM curriculum will require close collaboration among faculty from different disciplines and a shared commitment to a strongly multidisciplinary foundation. These kinds of discussions are now occurring with increasing frequency on college campuses and at professional meetings, and I can foresee a time when interdisciplinary training will become the standard preparation for STEM careers.
Another area in which our current STEM educational system falls short is helping students develop the passion, creativity and tenacity to find solutions to real-world problems. The leaps of insight that catalyze innovation are rare and unpredictable. Failure is far more common than success. In our traditional curriculum, classroom learning familiarizes students with the history of science more than its practice. We have the opportunity to teach the practice of science in laboratory courses, but we do students a disservice when these lab exercises are contrived. Students develop an expectation that lab exercises will “work” and an intolerance for the uncertainties that are inherent in authentic scientific research. Laboratory instruction must strike a balance between teaching standard techniques and allowing for open-ended inquiry in contexts that students find compelling and relevant. This will inspire students to become self-motivated learners and may help sustain their enthusiasm for science careers. In the coming decade, open-ended inquiry should be a part of every student’s undergraduate experience from the beginning so that students are not deterred by uncertainty. Undergraduate education should culminate in a mentored research opportunity in academia, government or industry, enabling students to experience first-hand the creation and application of new knowledge.