Occasional Paper II: What Works: Leadership— Challenges for the Future

What I Learned in 30 Years at the University About Catalyzing Change

Bruce Alberts
President--National Academy of Sciences
Chair--National Research Council

We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure all your life. It's as simple as that. When Max Planck was awarded the Nobel Prize, he said:

Looking backĀ·over the long and labyrinthine path which finally led to the discovery (of quantum theory), I am vividly reminded of Goethe's saying that men will always be making mistakes as long as they are striving after something.

John W. Gardner
Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society

Based on my thirty years of experience in universities, I want to discuss three general types of problems that interfere with the health of the science taught by science departments at the university level. I shall call these:
  1. the laboratory problem
  2. the problem of first-year courses
  3. the inertia problem.

I will illustrate these problems and some alternatives to avoid them with examples from my experiences as a student, faculty member, and science department chair. Finally, I will outline how the National Research Council, which I chair, might be able to assist the process of change in our approaches to science education nationwide.

The Laboratory Problem

All laboratory curricula are not equal. Laboratory experiences based on choices made by the student are far more educational than those which require the student to simply follow instructions. When risk is involved, the lab experience becomes not only exciting and motivating, but also a more accurate representation of our work as scientists.

Let me illustrate with some of my own experiences:

  • As a premed student at Harvard, my laboratories were nothing more than cooking classes how to follow and document recipes. As those laboratories were required, I labored through them. By my junior year, however, I was so disgusted with my Physical Chemistry laboratory that I petitioned out of it. I was told that, without the lab, I would find the class extremely difficult. In fact, omitting the lab in no way distracted from my understanding of the material.
  • The following summer, I found a chance job in a research laboratory. The exposure there to real research led me to change my entire career plans, and instead of medical school I went on to do graduate study in biochemistry.
  • Later, when I was a faculty member at Princeton, every student was required to undertake some form of independent study. I often supervised as many as eight undergraduates in my lab each year (four juniors and four seniors). According to informal polls, virtually every student in our department viewed this independent study as the highlight of their undergraduate career. Even those students whose performance in my lab was poor considered the experience to be invaluable.