PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century
Ben B. Whitlock
F21 Class of 2004 Statement
As an undergraduate one of the most horrifying assignments that I faced was the unknown identification in microbiology. A tube filled with bacteria and you with the task of determining which bacterium you possessed among hundreds of possible species. What a daunting task! Of course it wasn’t all that bad. I was a junior at this point and had some confidence in my abilities, plus it was later in the semester and I had already mastered many of the techniques that I needed to answer this question, but what if it had been my freshmen year and the first day of class. Now we are talking horror!
A challenge that faces STEM education is how to bridge the gap between the fledgling student at the beginning of their undergraduate career and the experienced student at the end. Far too many students cannot make this jump and are left with a bad taste for science which I believe breeds the mistrust and misconceptions that many have about scientific research and science in general. One of the odd conundrums of teaching STEM is that all of us that teach it, like it, but of course our students may not have that inherent interest and, faced with classes that seem to them to lack meaning or significance, they tune out.
I strongly feel that investigative laboratory work is at least a partial answer to this, but we need to go beyond the single solitary independent project within a single lab course. While I cheer, and constantly strive, to create labs such as these the long term benefits of this in enticing and retaining students in STEM is questionable. A potential answer to this may be to establish a cohesive, research-based curriculum that would begin with a scenario similar to the one in the first paragraph, with freshman STEM majors introduced to a research scenario that they would begin to work on in introductory courses and then continue to expand upon in later courses. Students in non-majors courses could be involved as well in other aspects of the project. For example, a biomedical project could involve non-majors in health surveys, education and research design. This would establish research as a culture within STEM courses that could easily result in interdisciplinary interaction between departments, faculty and students. I’ve recently become involved in the Genome Consortium for Active Teaching (GCAT) a program began by Malcolm Campbell to establish genomics teaching at the undergraduate level. This group has impressed me with the possibilities for using genomics as a way of involving numerous courses and disciplines – the introductory courses could examine biological response in organisms such as yeast or bacteria, advanced courses could examine gene expression differences, computer science courses could work on data analysis tools and database construction and math courses could examine the incredible need for good statistical analysis. This approach could help establish a continuum between the non-major course, the introductory course, the advanced course and other STEM courses. This may help retain students since they are all part of a cohesive focused group and every student will graduate with a wealth of experience and some type of research thesis or portfolio.
There are many obstacles to a curriculum such as this. Obviously, time, space and money are issues, but I think there are bigger issues that need to be addressed first. One is faculty communication and vision. This has to be open, shared and productive. There has to be the willingness to dedicate college-wide STEM to a shared vision. Two, there has to be a willingness to make changes. A few reticent faculty members can severely retard change and significant change would have to happen in most cases. We are really looking a type of problem-based learning model where students are developing their own course of study within a framework. This means that many traditional teaching courses/labs may need to be put to the side or re-designed and the amount of content reassessed. While these are major obstacles, the reward for a type of curriculum such as this is huge. Students would come out of this curriculum with a real understanding of science and how it is done.