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?
Ten years from now undergraduate STEM will be more interdisciplinary than ever. In fact, with the way the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are already beginning to overlap, it is quite possible that in 2016 we will see little distinction between them. Certainly each field, discipline, and subdiscipline will retain its own identity, but it is becoming clear that there needs to be collaboration between disciplines, as well.
Mathematics is especially well-suited to mesh with other fields. It is a common practice to introduce undergraduate students to various concepts by taking examples from science, technology, and engineering. Several areas, such as mathematical biology and information theory, combine mathematics with other disciplines to create entirely new fields of research. Bringing these and future blends from the diverse STEM fields to undergraduates early and often will give them a much better feel for how naturally interconnected the subjects are, while still educating them in what we believe are the "fundamentals" of the individual subjects.
In 2016 it will be more important than ever to get undergraduate STEM students involved in research. Of course not all of the students will go on to do research after graduation, but the experiences of learning on their own, drawing conclusions from their data, and seeing how discoveries are made will be vital to their understanding of how STEM is used every day. Undergraduate STEM students will need to be able to learn on their own and infer information from data collected. A great deal of work in STEM will involve data collection and analysis. Teaching our students how to do this, and letting them experience it firsthand, will prepare them for the challenges they will face in their careers.
I have described what I believe to be two strong trends in undergraduate STEM education, trends that will lead to important changes in the way we teach our subjects. I also believe that certain facets of our education will remain basically unchanged in the foreseeable future. Part of a fundamental mathematics education is a grounding in mathematical theory and abstraction, apart from any applications or “concrete” problems. These skills are necessary for developing mathematical thinking, and mathematical thinking will always be necessary. With appropriate training a student can apply the methods of mathematical theory to almost any real-world situation. Without the theory it is difficult to draw connections between seemingly different subjects and fields. Theory is needed in order to fully appreciate the interdisciplinary nature of STEM education. The importance of theory will not diminish in the next ten years.
No one can be certain of what undergraduate STEM education will be like in 2016. There are a few emerging trends that will take time to fully develop, and the next ten years will show just how valuable they are. It is undeniable, though, that interdisciplinary collaboration will drive the future of STEM education at all levels. The more we can involve our students in the changing face of STEM education, the better we will be able to prepare them for the challenges and opportunities they will face in the future.