PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Gary A. Morris

F21 Class of 2006 Statement

Gary A. Morris is Associate Professor of Physics & Astronomy at Valparaiso University.

To gain a perspective on where we are headed in STEM education in the next decade, it's helpful to reflect briefly on where we have been and where our students are today. Over the last two decades, research into the process of learning science has indicated that active engagement of students in our classrooms is an essential component in learning the material well. The ways in which students most effectively can be actively engaged have changed over time. While for some students, a stimulating lecture might work as well as interactive exercises or an engaging demonstration, others (and an increasing fraction of them) require more dynamic activities to be engaged.

Today’s students, like none before them, are adept with information technology. Their skills in finding information must be harnessed and leveraged in their undergraduate experience. Furthermore, according to studies of the “millennial generation,” today’s students are also more apt to work in groups toward some collaborative, community service project. They see themselves using their unique talents to fill important, positive roles in society at large.

The world in which our students live is changing rapidly. In many fields, today’s graduates must compete globally with those in China, India, and other emerging third world countries. Their competitors are hungry, motivated, disciplined, and hard working. To better prepare our students to live and thrive in the world of their future, I endorse a more dynamic undergraduate STEM experience that emphasizes real world science problems over the traditional focus on textbook problems. Students need to understand that science problems do not all have neat solutions – there are no answers to look up in the back of the textbook. Furthermore, it is acceptable for and should be encouraged of students to ask questions for which we do not have the answers at our fingertips. Instead, we must formulate approaches, experiments, inquiries, etc. using the scientific method to answer queries. Our students’ skills at locating and leveraging existing information sources should be valuable here.

Given the interconnectedness of the world provided through the internet, I expect that 10 years from now, our students will be working on collaborative projects with students overseas. The diversity of backgrounds and ideas that could be exchanged through such interaction will be enriching for all involved. Not only will the students learn about science, they necessarily will also develop a better understanding of other cultures and approaches to problems. Through such collaborations, students will gain an appreciation for the importance of diversity in forming groups to solve problems. In addition, the students will have a chance to interact with their peers and their competition in the marketplace of ideas and scientific research. Similar collaborations will also take place in classroom endeavors. Again, the availability of technology that can seamlessly integrate students and faculty members from other universities within the United States and from foreign countries will allow a sharing of resources and ideas as never before. No longer will the classroom be dominated by one faculty member presenting his or her views on a subject. Rather, multiple faculty members from a diverse range of institutions can interact in both debate and collaboration as part of the 2016 STEM classroom experience, modeling for students the way the scientific world actually functions.

Finally, and essentially, all undergraduate STEM majors should take a role in an active research project with a faculty mentor. We cannot allow STEM majors to apply for graduate school without knowing what scientific research is really like, and whether or not a career in research is suited for them. Students need practical experiences while in college so that they can determine for which pursuits their talents are best suited and in which subject areas their interests will motivate them to a long, satisfying career.

These innovations should add an excitement to the scientific experience for undergraduate students in the decade to come. From interacting with students at other schools and in other countries to learning from the world’s experts in a given field, the STEM undergraduate experience in 2016 will ignite a passion for and provide an environment in which to pursue science at levels previously thought to be unattainable.