PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
Adam R. Urbach
F21 Class of 2004 Statement
STEM and Beyond: Interdisciplinarity and science teaching and learning
Excellence in education in the sciences (encompassing math, science, and engineering) is among the primary reasons the United States has retained its competitive economic and military advantages. With the rise of developing international economies, particularly in Asia, it is clear that in the years to come we must improve upon the current state of science education in the US, or else we risk losing these advantages. The most influential and effective level in which to accomplish this improvement is at the undergraduate level, where students are in the most enthusiastic and open-minded years of their education, and where critical decisions are often made as to which direction to take their careers. Access to a well-rounded, high-quality science education at this level is crucial to their intellectual development, regardless of their primary field of study.
The traditional, and currently the most prevalent, state of undergraduate education in the sciences involves lecture and laboratory courses. The environment of a research laboratory, where advancements in science and technology are actually made, is typically foreign to undergraduates, even those majoring in the sciences. While courses are essential for developing an intellectual foundation for the subject matter, introducing students to the research laboratory early on in their education is essential to providing a well-rounded perspective on what it means to be a scientist or engineer—that is, what are the goals, resources, challenges, and rewards involved in advancing our knowledge of the natural world and in using this knowledge to build better tools for our society. This experience is a crucial component of an effective undergraduate education, which should prepare tomorrow’s citizens and leaders to take on the challenges ahead, many of which are inextricably linked to science and technology.
To realize this vision, it is only necessary to list several major problems facing our society—for example, disease, energy, famine, pollution, and terrorism—and then to ask how any of these problems could be addressed without advancements in science and technology, or how our country would fare without a population better prepared in the sciences. Solutions to these problems will undoubtedly require a multidisciplinary approach. As a chemist, I aim to teach students how chemistry, as the central scientific discipline, can be used broadly to impact problems in biology, engineering, and materials science. Future progress in these areas will depend on preparing students to identify important problems and to propose innovative, multidisciplinary solutions.
As a scientist and an educator, I have chosen to serve society by working to provide undergraduates with the best possible educational experience in the sciences. As part of this mission, I recently joined the faculty at Trinity University, where the extensive incorporation of research into the curriculum provides not only an exceptionally well-rounded science education, but also an environment that fosters creative thinking and that challenges students to participate in solving real problems. The faculty in the chemistry department at Trinity encourage all students to get involved in research, and the students often begin work in a research lab in their Freshman or Sophomore years. I plan to continue this tradition at Trinity, and to work towards the broad acceptance of this educational vision in the years to come.