PKAL Faculty for the 21st Century

Penny Workman

F21 Class of 2006 Statement

Penny Workman is Assistant Professor of Chemistry at University of Wisconsin-Marathon County.

Question: What will undergraduate STEM be like in 2016, given the urgency of new challenges and opportunities facing our nation?

We live in an interesting time. Americans are steadily exposed to STEM through various forms of media. Newspapers, magazines, and news programs keep us up to date on the latest progress in medical research and technological advances, and scare us with the latest information on new diseases and biological warfare. Commercials offer us the latest in "scientifically proven" diet aids and supplements, advanced waters, and numerous other products asserted to be superior based on scientific testing. Despite our constant exposure to science and technology, and our more than apparent fascination with it, we know alarmingly little about it. Every year we read global reports telling us that Americans, as a whole, are falling further behind in STEM areas.

As an undergraduate, I took my core science and math classes. I took electives like psychology and Shakespeare. I never met another student in any of my STEM classes that was taking it as an elective. The vast majority of students approach math and science classes merely as courses that must be taken to fulfill a program requirement. My (nonscience) friends were happy to explain this mystery. STEM courses had two disadvantages: they were hard and boring. This perception shouldn’t be a surprise. If a non-major takes, for example, even the most basic general chemistry course, she will spend the semester muddling through topics such as molecular orbital theory and the Schrödinger equation. While these topics may be valuable for those going on in STEM fields, they are of little relevance to those who are not. Few institutions offer STEM classes designed to engage student interest. We offer courses for those who need them for their programs, and rarely, if ever, even dream of designing a course for those who don’t. If we hope to improve literacy in STEM areas, we must draw a more diverse population, that is, more than our current majors and those required to take our courses. We must start offering electives in addition to our standard battery of core courses.

The time is right for this change. Americans are constantly exposed to science through media sources. Everyday, we hear reports about technology behind hybrid cars, potential benefits of stem cell research, "new" diseases such as bird flu and West Nile virus, and potential outcomes from genetically modified crops. Americans are already interested in STEM topics. Over the coming years, we need to recognize the interest and work to provide courses to meet it. I am not advocating abolishing or dramatically changing the content of current core courses. Rather, we should seek to add courses to our curricula that will gain the interest of those students who might not otherwise consider a STEM course. They would not be core courses, but electives. Topics of this nature are featured in news stories everyday, yet we as a discipline have yet to step up and take responsibility for educating the public about them. In the coming years, it is my hope and vision, that science education will recognize the interest and need for such courses, and begin making offerings. I believe this is our best route for regenerating interest in the STEM fields, and strengthening the level of STEM knowledge in America.