PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
Anne E. Kruchten
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?
Many of the students in the class of 2016 are twelve years old today and live in a world where science is all around them: the threat of avian flu, the ethics of genetic engineering, and the complications of rising gas prices. These twelve year olds also have mastered technology and don’t know of life without computers. Some of these twelve year olds will go on to college and become STEM students by major while others will choose majors outside of science and technology fields. The perspectives and experiences of these twelve year olds today will follow them into the future in a way I believe hasn’t happened in the past.
Society is beginning to understand that science doesn’t only affect scientists. Anthrax is not just a microbe in a test tube, renewable energy is not only for tree huggers, and a lab coat and goggles won’t protect you from catching a pandemic strain of flu. If you listen to the news today, people will be complaining about high gas prices and how the government should fix them. But if you listen more closely, you can hear everyday Americans talking about how they themselves can fix energy problems. Ideas such as conservation, alternative fuels and renewable energy, and mass transit have begun to circulate around the general population. The American Ego is nothing without its pride in its creativity and innovation. If there’s a problem, we can fix it.
In 2016 and the years leading up to then, undergraduate STEM education needs to capitalize on society’s creativity and burgeoning awareness of science around them. Computational abilities, genomic and proteomic studies, nanotechnologies, and other new discoveries are changing the way in which we view our world. Perhaps it’s my naïve optimism as a new assistant professor, but in terms of educating students to be effective scientists and problems solvers, I believe that the STEM departments around the country are on the right track. Many institutions are emphasizing the synthesis of ideas rather than the memorization of facts. Problem solving has become a popular alternative to memorization. When considering courses for non-majors, we are focusing on issues facing society and what a concerned citizen should know about the science behind these issues. I’m not sure what STEM will be like in 2016, but I think it should be turning out thinking citizens who are prepared to consider the challenges of their time.
As educators and participants in STEM fields, our challenge is to meet the needs of the students of the future and to continue to develop novel ways to address the challenges in our world. To do this we must do several things: 1) resist the urge to become apathetic in the face of diminishing science and educational budgets and student interest, 2) continue to use creativity as a tool for education and prevent disciplinary boundaries from holding us back, and 3) invigorate our own intellectual interests by engaging in research no matter how small or large. If we solve the problem of high gas prices in the year 2006, there will inevitably be new challenges on this increasingly small planet in the year 2016 to occupy our time and energy and be the ambition for the twelve year olds of today.