PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
Shanna D. Ray
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?
In 2016, today’s 7- and 8-year-olds will be entering college. Important characteristics of these students will influence the educational environment that undergraduate institutions will provide. First, this generation is growing up in a time when computers and the internet are ubiquitous. College students in 2016 will not tolerate antiquated scientific equipment, facilities, and library resources. Staying abreast of the latest technology and adapting to the rapid rate of technological change will be necessary for any university that wishes to attract students. This will pose challenges for undergraduate STEM departments at small schools that lack abundant resources. Second, this generation will be more diverse than previous generations. Since the 1970s, the proportion of non-Hispanic white students in elementary and high schools has decreased from 79% to 60%. The gender gap in college enrollment also continues to widen, with 57% of new college students now being female. Universities that thrive will need to attract, retain, and nurture the talent of female and minority students. This may require a cultural change on the part of STEM departments where these groups are currently underrepresented among the faculty and students.
Another factor that will influence undergraduate STEM is the aging of our society and the impact it will have on our health care system. In 2016, the oldest of the “baby boom” generation will begin turning 70. This will require that more money be spent on heath care and will increase demand for health care workers. This presents an opportunity for STEM departments to recruit and prepare increasing numbers of students for careers in the health care industry. Because nursing and pre-medical programs requires coursework from multiple disciplines, STEM departments will need to work together to ensure students are prepared for entry into these fields.
Additionally, I believe that federal agencies will allocate more funding for research that directly impacts medical care for older adults. In my own discipline of psychology, the fairly new discipline of health psychology will continue to increase in popularity. This sub-discipline of psychology is concerned with the role of social, emotional, and cognitive factors in the maintenance of physical health and recovery from disease or injury. Increased funding for research will create opportunities for students and faculty who are interested in these areas. However, it may also reduce the amount of funding available for basic scientific research, since politicians will be under pressure to allocate limited resources to research with immediate applications to the lives of baby boomers.
In addition to the societal changes discussed above, I believe that there are a number of scientific advances that have taken place in fields outside of psychology that will open up new opportunities for research within my discipline. For example, improvements in brain-scanning technology have already enhanced our ability to study the neurological bases of human behavior. This area of psychology will continue to flourish over the next decade. Recent advances in genetics and cloning will have similar effects. For over a century, psychologists have sought to answer the “nature / nurture” question using primarily twin studies, family studies, and adoption studies. With the mapping of the human genome, the possibility of genetic modification, and the feasibility of rearing genetically identical (cloned) members of a species in varied environments, new methods are being created to study genetic and environmental influences on behavior. This is both a challenge and opportunity—a challenge because most of these methods are fraught with ethical problems that need to be taken seriously. However, the knowledge to be gained from this research will deepen our understanding of the complex ways in which genes and environment interact to influence things such as personality and intelligence. It may also lead to advances in identification and treatment of psychological disorders that we believe have a genetic basis, such as schizophrenia, depression, and autism. More than ever before, psychology students will need to be knowledgeable about biology so that they can understand these new discoveries and eventually work with interdisciplinary teams of researchers who are studying these questions.
Finally, if the past can teach us anything about the future, it is that we cannot always predict what discovery or challenge will arise. There are new developments on the horizon that few of us can anticipate. Therefore, we need to prepare our educational institutions so that we can be flexible with changing circumstances. We also need to equip students to deal with the new opportunities and challenges that they will encounter when they leave us.