PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Cass D. Parker

F21 Class of 2004 Statement

Cass Parker is Associate Professor of Chemistry at Clark Atlanta University.

Science by its definition covers a broad range of subjects; yet the common approach in teaching has always been singular. Chemists teach chemistry, physicists teach physics, biologists teach biology and the list goes on, however, in our everyday life decisions that are science based are made using knowledge of all subjects. It is with the changing world that the disciplines of science have crossed over into each other and so must our teachings.

As we move forward in the 21st Century every effort must be made to blur the lines between disciplines in our teaching by informing, teaching and training students. Students should be exposed early in their education how dependent and related STEM fields are.

I propose and I use regularly in my lecture examples of biochemistry, pharmacology and even engineering to show how related these fields are. For example, the structure and functional groups present in a molecule are responsible for its reactivity and biological function. Using Bragg’s equation to determine atomic spacing and packing helps engineers determine lattice defects that lead to structural failure in metal and alloy structures. Those of us in science read and understand these relationships but seldom introduce them in the class. Success in our future lies in the ability of faculty to create new scientists and engineers that connect across disciplines to solve emerging and existing problems of diseases, environmental waste, food and comfort resources

The major barrier to overcome in such a case in simple, turf wars! Faculty and departments must be prepared to give up total ownership of a course and accept a buy in to the team effort that gives ownership to students that complete the course sequence. The ownership of knowledge base by the student therewith gives ownership of the successful program to the faculty and the institution. In order to accomplish the goal of interdisciplinary teaching and learning a definite buy-in by the faculty is needed. Resources will be needed to make changes in the laboratory experience and facilities, and time needed by faculty to make changes in curricula and courses. Laboratory space must have the flexibility and adaptability to address the need of an interdisciplinary setting to clearly show the relationship between and breakdown the barriers between the disciplines.

By careful planning, I have set out with my colleagues at CAU to break down barriers within the field of chemistry and those of biology. It is important that we bring lessons learned from research that help us understand the relationship of these fields to each other.

In chemistry, we have begun a plan to break down the barriers within the sub-disciplines, in this case, general and organic chemistry, by restructuring the sequence and topics within the two fields. Our ultimate goal is a course where students are engaged in active learning of organic and general chemistry and can clearly see the link between the two courses using the best available technology and pedagogy. As we progress in this sequence, we foresee biology becoming an integral part as key biological elements can be introduced easily into a course where basic chemistry concepts, structural relationship and molecular synthesis are learned.

Faculty buy-in is a tedious process, but achievable. Resources, time and support will be needed as we, the faculty in all disciplines, come together to develop the courses and curricula for developing seamless interdisciplinary programs in the sciences and mathematics. I see it everyday in the achievement of researchers in varying fields of science, and I see it coming closer and closer in the classroom. We all must be prepared to make those changes, I am one of the willing and capable, and I am ready to convince my colleagues that this is the way teaching should be.