PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Mark N. Kobrak

F21 Class of 2005 Statement

Mark Kobrak is Assistant Professor of Chemistry at CUNY-Brooklyn College.

What should the STEM learning experience be in the first two years so that students are motivated to persist in the study of STEM fields, become STEM majors, and pursue careers in STEM fields?

The greatest challenge facing schools seeking to engage students in scientific and technological endeavors is not student ignorance of the subject matter, but disengagement from the culture of science. While it is true that American high school students consistently score near the bottom of the industrialized world and are therefore often poorly prepared for the study of science at the college level, motivated students can and do overcome deficiencies in their background and go on to successful scientific careers. The more profound problem is students’ perceptions of science. Science and technology have acquired a mystique that obfuscates the activities surrounding their pursuit, and students are consequently intimidated by scientific occupations and convinced they are only for some inherently distinct group of people, “Who are good at science.” The problem is exacerbated by the fact that today’s college students have been surrounded since birth by devices so complex that they require an advanced knowledge of physics and chemistry to understand their operation. Students have consequently become comfortable with their ignorance of these subjects, and so are not easily excited by the chance to learn them. Even students who pursue technical professions often subscribe to these views, leaving them uncertain in their commitment to the study of these subjects. Such uncertainty makes it all the less likely that these students will persist in their studies and emerge as the scientists and engineers society so desperately needs. The goal of the introductory science experience at the college level must therefore be not simply to teach scientific principles, but also to humanize the scientific process. Students should be exposed to a variety of scientific and technical career options, meet practitioners in a range of areas, and be given the opportunity to engage in research as soon as possible after their arrival. These objectives cannot be achieved solely by restructuring existing curricula, but must engage students outside of the classroom. The presentation of facts is not enough: Students must be convinced that the scientific community welcomes them not in some distant future, but immediately, and in accessible venues. It is therefore necessary to create a campus environment in which students are routinely exposed to discussion of science and scientific careers.

Brooklyn College has taken a number of steps in this direction, both through campus-wide programs and through activities at the departmental level. The Department of Chemistry, for example, has for many years held an annual, “High School Day,” in which students from local high schools are brought to campus for tours of research facilities and a presentation by a distinguished lecturer. Many of these students subsequently attend Brooklyn College, and enter the campus knowing that they have the opportunity to participate in cutting edge research. Likewise, the department has begun organizing seminars on scientific careers, and has created pamphlets and compiled resources describing career options in scientific and technical fields. Finally, the department’s continuing practice of staffing a significant fraction of its introductory laboratory courses with full-time faculty provides a venue in which students can speak with established scientists about career options and research opportunities. Other departments and programs have taken similar steps, helping to raise student awareness about science and technology disciplines.

In sum, the introductory science experience cannot be solely about academic material. Campuses must present an environment in which students are both aware of opportunities in science and are given the opportunity to engage with practitioners. Ultimately, in science and in all areas of learning, an educational institution can only fulfill its mission by maintaining an active intellectual life that is both accessible to students and eager to accept them.