Sciences/Tech/Engineering/Math

The Innumeracy of Intellectuals

I know nothing about art or music.

OK, that's not entirely true -- I know a little bit here and there. I just have no systematic knowledge of art or music (by which I mean fine art and classical music). I don't know Beethoven from Bach, Renaissance from Romantics. I'm not even sure those are both art terms.

Despite the sterling reputation of the department, I never took an art history class when I was an undergraduate at Williams College, nor did I take any music classes. They weren't specifically required, and I was a physics major. My schedule was full of math and science classes, and I didn't feel I had time for six hours a week of looking at slides. It's a significant gap in my education.

Given my line of work, this is occasionally ... it doesn't rise to the level of a liability, but it's awkward. I'm a professor at a liberal arts college, putting me solidly in the "Intellectual" class, and there's a background assumption that anyone with as much education as I have will know something about history and philosophy and literature and art and classical music. I read enough to have literature covered, even if my knowledge is a little patchy, and I took enough classes in college to have a rough grasp of history and philosophy, but art and music are hopeless. When those subjects come up in conversation, I just smile and nod and change the topic as soon as possible. On those occasions when I'm forced to admit my ignorance (or, worse yet, the fact that I don't even like classical music), my colleagues tend to look a little sideways at me, and I can feel myself drop slightly in their estimation. Not knowing anything about those subjects makes me less of an Intellectual to most people in the academy.

I was reminded of this by a recent blog posting at Republic of T, which puts into stark relief what is missing from that list of background assumptions: math and science.

Intellectuals and academics are just assumed to have some background knowledge of the arts, and not knowing those things can count against you. Ignorance of math and science is no obstacle, though. I have seen tenured professors of the humanities say -- in public faculty discussions, no less -- "I'm just no good at math," without a trace of shame. There is absolutely no expectation that Intellectuals know even basic math.

Ignorance of math can even be a source of a perverse sort of pride-- the bit of the blog post that reminded me of this is a call-back to an earlier post in which he relates his troubles with math, and how he exploited a loophole in his college rules to graduate without passing algebra. To me that anecdote reads as more proud than shameful-- less "I'm not good at math" and more "I'm clever enough to circumvent the rules."

It's not entirely without shame, of course. In the paragraph immediately after the algebra anecdote, the author gets a little defensive:

Or is it worth considering that perhaps not everyone can "do" algebra, trig or calculus? Is it worth considering that perhaps there are even some smart people who aren't great at math and/or science?... [A]re we to force every peg, round or square, into that hole at the expense of forcing students, who may be gifted in other equally important subjects, to drop out after a long series of demoralizing failures?

This is the exact same chippiness I hear from physics majors who are annoyed at having to take liberal arts classes in order to graduate. The only difference is that students seeking to avoid math or science classes can expect to get a sympathetic hearing from much of the academy, where the grousing of physics majors is written off as whining by nerds who badly need to expand their narrow minds.

In fairness, it’s worth noting that some academics are against mandatory liberal arts instruction for science majors, and so are consistent in allowing the educated to avoid some subjects. But the avoidance of math and science is a common and accepted part of many core curricula, and this attitude gets my back up.

I'm not exaggerating when I say that I think the lack of respect for math and science is one of the largest unacknowledged problems in today's society. And it starts in the academy -- somehow, we have moved to a place where people can consider themselves educated while remaining ignorant of remarkably basic facts of math and science. If I admit an ignorance of art or music, I get sideways looks, but if I argue for taking a stronger line on math and science requirements, I'm being unreasonable. The arts are essential, but Math Is Hard, and I just need to accept that not everybody can handle it.

This has real consequences for society, and not just in the usual "without math, we won't be able to maintain our technical edge, and the Chinese will crush us in a few years" sense. You don't need to look past the front section of the paper. Our economy is teetering because people can't hack the math needed to understand how big a loan they can afford. We're not talking about vector calculus or analytical geometry here -- we're mired in an economic crisis because millions of our citizens can't do arithmetic. And that state of affairs has come about in no small part because the people running the academy these days have no personal appreciation of math, and thus no qualms about coddling innumeracy.

I'm not entirely sure what to do about it, alas. I half want to start calling bullshit on this -- to return the sideways looks when colleagues in the humanities and social sciences confess ignorance of science. I want to get in people's faces when they off-handedly dismiss math and science, in the same way that they get in people's faces for comments that hint at racial or gender insensitivity. I suspect that all this would accomplish is to get me a reputation as "that asshole who won't shut up about math," though, and people will stop inviting me to parties.

Sadly, I don't know what other solution there is. It simply should not be acceptable for people who are ignorant of math and science to consider themselves Intellectuals. Somehow, we need to move away from where we are and toward a place where confusing Darwin with Dawkins or Feynman with Faraday carries the same intellectual stigma as confusing Bach with Beethoven or Rembrandt with Reubens.

Author/s: 
Chad Orzel
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Chad Orzel is an associate professor of physics at Union College, in Schenectady, N.Y. This essay is adapted from a posting on his blog, Uncertain Principles. He is currently working on a book explaining quantum mechanics to a general audience -- through imaginary conversations with his dog.

Making a Case for Diversity in STEM Fields

When we were in college some 40 years ago, neither of us ever had an African-American or Latino professor. Unfortunately, even today many students at major American research universities have the same experience. Departments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- the STEM fields -- are typically the least diverse. Not only is that situation dismaying for those of us who lived through the civil rights movement, but it is also a big policy problem for our country.

At a time when STEM fields are increasingly important to our national security, health, and competitiveness we are neither supporting the research nor producing the diverse pool of scientists and engineers we need to fuel our future.

Programs to broaden the pool of STEM students are being scrutinized, and some have been eliminated. Beyond the obvious logic of numbers -- the more people in a field, the more likely it is that talented practitioners will appear -- research suggests that a diversity of perspectives enriches science and makes engineering more responsive to a global pool of clients. For example, Anthony Lising Antonio, et al. reported on a study of college-student discussion groups in an August 2004 issue of Psychological Science. According to the research, students working in a more diverse group setting were influenced by the different perspectives of minority participants and demonstrated enhanced complex thought processes as a result.

This is especially relevant in the STEM fields, where students are often required to work collaboratively and where thinking about a problem in new and different ways is central to developing solutions. In a friend-of-the-court brief pertaining to the Supreme Court cases on affirmative action at the University of Michigan, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, DuPont, IBM, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering submitted an argument documenting that "the importance of diversity is heightened in the fields of science and engineering."

As an engine of our economy, the STEM disciplines and the diversity of that workforce should give us great pause. Although only 5 percent of American workers were employed in STEM occupations as of 2006, their impact on the national and global economies is disproportionately large.

In both academe and the workforce, those fields look the least like America, with much smaller proportions of women, African Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos. Although the overall student population has become more diverse, at the undergraduate level members of these minority groups are underrepresented among all STEM majors, with women underrepresented in many STEM fields. At the graduate level, there is an additional problem: a declining percentage of U.S. citizens. In many departments of physics, computer science, and engineering, it is difficult to find a graduate student who is a U.S. citizen. Across the STEM fields, the situation for faculty members is even more dire.

To achieve better representation in our colleges' STEM departments, we must deal with three issues.

First, we must clearly articulate the educational case for diversity, showing how students and society benefit from it. After that, we can determine how best to reach diversity: What policies should be altered, what practices endorsed, what structural changes made, and what resources committed? In biomedical research, for instance, we must not assume that whites and males are typical of all patients and develop treatments only for them; when scientists who are not white males are present, that assumption is more likely to be challenged.

Second, we need to think more holistically about diversity in STEM, including the need for everyone on our campuses -- undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty and staff members -- to be exposed to diverse ideas and worldviews. For example, in the high-tech industry, the composition of work teams now mirrors the consumer market for company products. No such practices pervade STEM units on campus, although research in many areas ultimately impacts consumers, and many students and faculty will someday operate in the private sector. To reach this goal, we may need to re-examine functions like admissions, financial aid, and faculty recruitment and advancement. What are the criteria by which decisions are made in each case? By reassigning accountability for those functions to a central office, promising and creative practices can be shared throughout the institution, with rewards for STEM units that are diversifying. A campus-wide repository of data, as well as college-specific tools, for monitoring and managing levels of diversity, is essential. Innovative examples can be found in many universities -- Harvard University on faculty searches, the University of California at Berkeley on undergraduate support, Georgia Tech on promotion and tenure -- which honor excellence while seeking to diversify participation in STEM education and careers.

Third, we must acknowledge that stereotypes still matter, and that they affect perceptions of quality and expectations for performance -- regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. Studies show that humans use irrelevant external cues and group attributes in our judgments of people -- noting, for example, the race or ethnicity of a doctor before evaluating the extent of her medical knowledge. Assuming that diversity on a campus is just the result of affirmative action or special pleading reveals a different kind of bias. The Supreme Court has ruled that although colleges can consider race/ethnicity as one factor in developing policies such considerations may not carry undue weight relative to other aspects of individual qualifications. Opponents of affirmative-action programs can always claim that their emphasis on group characteristics -- race and sex -- override the required focus on individual characteristics. It seems illogical to operate special programs for the numerical majority -- women and members of minority groups. But special programs remain a valuable source of “intelligence” in guiding the transition to institution-wide approaches. Only leaders, including presidents and trustees, can begin institutional transformation in support of diversity. Though such broad change needs to start at the top, it must also be embraced and carried out at all levels.

So-called race-neutral programs -- created in response to new laws that undercut the use of affirmative action or consider socio-economic status as a proxy for race and ethnicity -- are increasingly advocated by the federal government. But they cannot be the only policy tool used to right that moral wrong. Instead, we must move toward strategies to transform an entire institution -- to serve the needs of all students and faculty members, regardless of discipline, not just those with certain characteristics. Even those who decry affirmative action should applaud an institution-wide approach that gives students what they need to succeed. Yet, this is not the same as providing “equal” treatment.

Judicial retreat on diversity in primary and secondary education is making it more difficult to diversify institutions of higher education. For example, in spring 2007 the Supreme Court struck down voluntary local strategies to desegregate schools in Seattle and Jefferson County, Kentucky. The rulings asserted that American society is color blind and the playing field is level -- assertions that are both naïve and self-deceptive.

Americans born with the “right” sex, race, or social class still receive advantages at birth. And residence patterns can compound those advantages, as some public schools have the money to buy new technology and hire seasoned educators while others do not. Data from the College Board show that SAT scores are closely linked with zip codes. In the words of Isabel V. Sawhill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, “At virtually every level, education in America tends to perpetuate rather than compensate for existing inequalities.” She notes, “It takes about five generations for the advantages and disadvantages of family background to die out in the United States.”

Meanwhile, the fact remains that the United States is already importing talent and outsourcing technical jobs. Although that may make sense for our society in the short run, it is risky policy in the long run. Sooner or later, a white male science, engineering, or medical-school graduate will sue his alma mater -- not because he was denied admission to a special program, but because his education in a homogeneous environment left him ill equipped to function in his chosen career. His lack of cultural competence will have impaired his contributions to the productivity of a diverse team, to satisfy a diverse client market, or to treat a diverse group of patients.

Let us not deceive ourselves. The legacy of Brown v. Board of Education may be in danger in the courts, and thus race-based affirmative action may no longer represent a viable national strategy for providing educational opportunity to all Americans. But our colleges and universities have an obligation to teach science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to a racially and ethnically diverse group of U.S. citizens -- for our own good.

Author/s: 
Daryl E. Chubin and Shirley M. Malcom
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Daryl E. Chubin is director of the Center for Advancing Science and Engineering Capacity at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Shirley M. Malcom is head of AAAS Education and Human Resources Programs.

Will Financial Crisis Starve Academic Innovation?

Even before Thomas Friedman announced that the world was flat, it was increasingly recognized that innovations stemming from academic research play a vital role in sustaining the competitiveness of the United States in the global economy. Federal science agencies and the states have adopted policies that focused academic research on fields with commercial potential and ensured that research findings would be shared with industry. Corporations in electronics, healthcare, and even petroleum have deepened their relations with university scientists and established long-term partnerships. Now, however, with the financial crisis disrupting virtually all corners of the economy, academic innovation too is threatened. The nation’s ability to innovate should be a potential antidote to the economic slump, not its victim.

Academic innovation is a complex process, with strategic actors in federal agencies, state governments, corporate labs, start-up companies, and venture capital -- as well as universities. Each faces somewhat different challenges.

If there is one bright spot in the gloom, it would be the relatively generous federal support for academic research, especially the additional stimulus funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. President Obama specifically called on the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation to spur “new discoveries and breakthroughs that will make our economy stronger.” Both agencies have oriented grants toward areas of potential innovation.

Full federal science coffers, even temporarily, are a welcome change for university researchers. Basic research should be well provided for, especially in strategic science-based technologies, like nanotechnology, informatics, advanced materials, and biotechnology. Such fields are the seed beds of future innovation. However, potential problems lie in the transition from university laboratories to the commercial economy.

University start-up companies are particularly valuable for bringing to market technologies that might otherwise never escape the laboratory. The pharmacy industry draws heavily from the many biotech spinoff firms that undertake high-risk product development, and a similar division of labor has been emerging in industrial applications of nanotechnology. University start-ups grew at a rate of 15 percent per year in the late 1990s, but then stagnated following the recession of 2000-1. Start-ups have grown nearly as fast since 2003, but the current slump will surely bring this latest spurt to a halt. Economic conditions will be difficult for most small businesses, but university start-ups face the additional obstacle of raising long-term capital.

New technology firms typically face an extended period in which they spend money to develop products while generating little or no income. This is referred to in the trade as the “valley of death,” and traversing it usually requires early-stage investments from angel investors or venture capitalists. As the economic conditions make these sources more risk averse, investments are delayed until innovations are closer to becoming actual products. Smaller amounts of capital are often available from special university funds or state programs. These entities will need to fill some of the void left by the shrinkage of early-stage capital if this source of innovation is to remain robust.

Mature corporations conduct the vast majority of their R&D in their own laboratories, but universities can and do make distinctive contributions to corporate innovations through sponsored and collaborative research. Corporate-sponsored academic research registered a rare decrease after the last recession, and we can expect that the current downturn will reproduce this same pattern. In difficult times, firms hunker down and foreshorten their horizons. To counteract under-investment, a good deal of university-industry research collaboration is subsidized by state and federal programs. But, the outlook is particularly grim at the state level.

For more than a decade, state governments have been increasing the size and the range of their investments in technology-based economic development. Some programs have encouraged collaborative university-industry research in strategic areas, and most states have found ways to assist university start-ups, since almost three-quarters of these firms remain within their state of origin. Existing state programs are now under severe pressure and new initiatives unlikely. Arizona, facing one of the worst budget shortfalls, has been dismantling a well-conceived plan for building bioscience industries. Cutbacks may be unavoidable, of course, but unfortunately they have been accompanied by outdated rhetoric about “university boondoggles” and “corporate welfare.” Such attempts to discredit the entire endeavor could undermine both past achievements and future efforts.

With the ignominious collapse of the financial industry, it should be evident that the strength of American industry lies with technological innovation — most obviously in software, information technologies, medicine, and advanced materials, but now touching virtually all manufacturing industry. University research provides vital inputs to the innovations that keep American firms on the cutting edge of fiercely competitive fields, and these contributions should not be allowed to atrophy during the current downturn. While the public investment in research seems assured, at least in the short run, it is imperative to maintain our investments in the multiple channels that have made it possible to translate university inventions into products that enhance economic competitiveness and human well-being.

Author/s: 
Roger L. Geiger
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Roger L. Geiger, distinguished professor of higher education at Pennsylvania State University, is co-author with Creso Sá of Tapping the Riches of Science: Universities and the Promise of Economic Growth,published in January by Harvard University Press.

Reforming Pre-Med

What does it mean to replace a set of pre-med courses with competencies that might be fulfilled with any number of courses? That’s a central question for those who think, as I do, that the report “Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians,” released by the Association of American Medical Colleges, in collaboration with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute -- and featured recently by Inside Higher Ed -- must become a topic of discussion in higher education. As an educator, dean, and contributor to the report, I believe it is critical that educators, administrators, professional organizations and foundations begin immediately with a close examination and debate of the report’s recommendations, if we are to prepare medical professionals more effectively and inspire students to engage in scientific inquiry.

To be sure, the debate will be complex. Even I -- a member of the committee that produced the report -- must confess that the idea of doing away with the list of pre-medical courses appealed to me as an educator but concerned me at first as a college dean: What would be the cost of change and how would a college pay for it? Tim Austin, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the College of the Holy Cross, articulated this concern in his comments to Inside Higher Ed: "I simply want to be realistic about the massive scope of the changes that the committee proposes."

In due course the educator eventually quieted and comforted the administrator, who came to realize that an approach based on competencies will enrich the scientific and medical communities without necessarily overburdening colleges and universities already challenged by an economic recession. Let me explain.

At its core, “Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians” upholds what I regard to be an important goal of liberal education: to explore and discover connections between different threads of human thought and experience. Scientists and engineers trained in the tradition of the liberal arts understand the socioeconomic and political contexts of global challenges, and are more likely to find solutions that affirm human rights, protect the environment, and raise standards of living across the globe. With medicine becoming ever more reliant on advances in science and technology, medical professionals also must learn to make connections within the sciences and between the sciences and other disciplines. So medical schools look -- and will continue to look -- for intellectual breadth in applicants.

In the area of scientific foundations, preparation for medical school must include study of the principles and basic tools of mathematics, statistics, physics, biology, and chemistry. After all, when else but during their college years will medical professionals be exposed to, for example, the mathematics that can predict the progress of biochemical processes, the ideas that led to the development of ultrasound and MRI techniques, or the ability to synthesize biomedically active molecules in the laboratory?

Of course, the current pre-med curriculum, based on a rather inflexible menu of courses, already delivers basic concepts of science to students. But the challenge posed to educators -- and yes, administrators -- by “Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians” is the notion that mathematical and scientific content should be presented in context, preferably by emphasizing interdisciplinary approaches in the classroom and laboratory. Robert Alpern, co-chair of the AAMC-HHMI Committee, asserts correctly that the curriculum could “become much more interesting.” More importantly, making explicit connections between the traditional disciplines of science could lead to a long-overdue revolution in undergraduate mathematics and science education that will benefit not only pre-medical students, but all students -- even those who will not study mathematics and science beyond what is required in a general education program. The educator in me accepts the challenge and welcomes change that may result not only in broadly educated scientists, engineers, and medical professionals, but also in enhanced science literacy for all.

Moving along a pragmatic path to reform might well require short but intentional -- and not necessarily very costly -- steps. For example, a general chemistry or physics course need not be overhauled completely to present the subject in the context of biomedical science. Close reading of the undergraduate competencies related to chemistry and physics shows that the cores of these disciplines, as taught in traditional introductory courses, are preserved. The AAMC-HHMI Committee realizes that supporting biology or pre-medical education is not the only -- indeed not even the primary -- goal of modern curricula in physics and chemistry.

At the same time, interdisciplinary links to biology are stronger than ever, and introductory courses in chemistry, physics, and mathematics already are highlighting such links, just as they also underscore connections to environmental science, materials science, and technology. The connections and context that “Scientific Foundations for Future Physicians” challenges educators to strengthen can come from targeted examples in the classroom and laboratory that map chemical, physical, and mathematical concepts onto biological and medical concepts. And the report suggests many examples without being prescriptive: for example, comparing data sets using informatics tools; applying geometric optics to understand image formation in the eye; and applying understanding of concepts of chemical reactivity to predict biochemical processes, such as enzyme catalysis.

I suggest that, at a minimum, enrichment of existing courses (such as introductory chemistry and physics) along the general lines indicated by the report could be part of what we should expect of all educators: perennial examination and improvement of curricular materials in an attempt to keep content fresh, students actively engaged, and the faculty energized. To be sure, lower-level mathematics, physics, and chemistry courses would be those most in need of examination, but also biology courses would have to strengthen links to other science courses if students are to understand and retain material at the interface between the disciplines.

More ambitious and rapid changes -- such as creation of brand new courses taught by two or more instructors linking different disciplinary perspectives -- would be more costly to design, implement, and sustain, but such bold moves are not strictly necessary. But if a college or university does wish to move more boldly, it is useful to note that major curricular innovation is indeed promoted by a number of foundations and federal agencies in positions to underwrite initial efforts. Moreover, science education is a common focus area at regional and national meetings of professional scientific societies, so that dissemination, sharing, and evolution of new best practices could happen naturally.

I already hinted that, after some soul searching, the educator and administrator in me reconciled. After all, a pre-med curriculum based on well-articulated competencies is also consistent with the goals of mathematics and science education in the tradition of the liberal arts: integration of quantitative and scientific reasoning -- in particular the scientific method of inquiry -- into a full description of nature and culture. So let us use our collective experience as educators to construct an exciting, innovative, and interdisciplinary pre-medical curriculum with the same energy and creativity that we apply to the periodic reinvention of general education programs at our home institutions. And in so doing, let us also imagine ways to reform mathematics and science curricula across all of higher education in America.

Author/s: 
Julio de Paula
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Julio de Paula is dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of chemistry at Lewis & Clark College. A physical chemistry textbook author and a recipient of the Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, de Paula is a member of the Council on Undergraduate Research and was a recent member of the National Science Foundation’s Advisory Committee for the Office of International Science and Engineering.

Engineering Flexibility

Two years ago, my daughter, Katherine, and I appeared on the cover of ASEE Prism magazine. A feature story by the American Society for Engineering Education on two generations of women engineers, perhaps? Not quite.

The cover story focused on how, at a time when the ranks of women faculty and deans in engineering have increased, the percentage of women who earn bachelor’s degrees in engineering is in decline. The lesson, supported by facts and data, is that our nation, our crumbling infrastructure and our ability to lead globally in the future are at risk because too few young people are choosing to study engineering. We will continue to lose talented would-be engineers who are female, as well as some who are male, until we change the traditional undergraduate engineering curriculum, one that is overly structured and lacks flexibility.

Like many women in engineering, I had indeed hoped that my daughter would one day aspire to pursue engineering. She has a knack for math, has always excelled in calculus and chemistry, and earned stellar grades in high school physics while displaying a natural intellectual curiosity in languages and French history. While I support Katherine’s choice to major in French history at the University of Southern California, the interview with ASEE expanded my thinking on a problem facing engineering.

At the time, my thoughts and suggestions about engineering were met with questions from my then-high-school-senior: “If I major in engineering, where’s my study abroad? Where’s my French or history minor? Will I have time to join a sorority?” As we sat down to review a biomedical engineering major that was of interest to her, it was obvious that the demands and rigid structure of virtually every engineering major would leave little room for other important college experiences.

As a dean, and now as a university president, one thing is clear to me: Engineering education in general must become more flexible to draw a wider selection of students enrolled as majors. Not just women, but a wider selection of people from across the spectrum.

If the engineering profession expects to attract sufficient young people to meet the technological workforce needs of our nation, it must be willing to change the educational path. The problem, then, is not how to overcome barriers to women entering engineering — it’s how to overcome the barriers to engineering in general.

An engineering major is like a train ride with only one boarding station, but lots of opportunities to jump off. How can we do a better job of retaining men and women who come aboard as freshmen only to make their way toward the exit door by sophomore year?

Transfer students and undecided majors discover that a degree in engineering is at least four years from the point of entry, regardless of prior college level work. There are just too many other good and simpler paths to a degree and a rewarding career.

If engineering hopes to avoid losing momentum as a profession in this country, it must accept the undeniable reality: young people are losing interest. Not because engineering is hard, or because they dislike math and science, or because engineering is boring. Young people are not majoring in engineering because they want a flexible route to a bachelor’s degree that allows them the opportunity to explore multiple interests while enjoying college and preparing for a job.

After years as an engineering faculty member, department head, dean and an engineering accreditation evaluator, I have come to the conclusion that engineering has to let go of our too-rigid undergraduate degree requirements and allow the graduate degree to provide the depth of preparation needed for professional practice or advanced graduate research. Studying engineering as an undergraduate, in contrast, should be an exciting exploration of engineering fundamentals and the creative design process while also delving into the liberal arts, exploring world cultures and developing social and leadership skills.

Undergraduate engineering degrees should be non-disciplinary and flexible programs that produce broadly educated engineers. These engineering degrees can be accredited under ABET’s existing criteria and will prepare graduates for positions not requiring technical depth. Companies that need engineers with disciplinary depth would select graduates of a professional engineering graduate program. Research organizations that need engineers with research capabilities would select graduates of our traditional master of science and doctor of philosophy engineering degree programs.

The dilemma our profession has faced is that, in an effort to prepare a 22-year-old with the depth of knowledge and skills needed by a specialized engineering professional, our undergraduate curriculums are effectively six years’ worth of engineering study crammed into four years. The resulting rigid, unrelenting curriculum doesn’t allow our engineers to develop sufficient capabilities in other critical areas such as understanding the global, economic, environmental or societal context of engineering or developing strong communication, interpersonal and leadership skills. It is time that our profession adopts best practices seen elsewhere, such as in the health professions, and relies on a professional master's or even a professional doctorate as the primary entry degree.

Undergraduate engineering majors should be able to devote at least 25 percent of their coursework to studies outside the requirements of their engineering degree. This would allow engineering students to explore academic areas complementary to engineering, such as business or foreign languages or nuclear physics, or simply other areas of intellectual interest, such as music or political science.

Those developing the major requirements at colleges and universities should bear in mind that most B.S. engineering graduates don’t practice engineering. According to Jim Duderstadt, author of Engineering for a Changing World, “only about 50 percent of engineering graduates will enter technical careers and after five years, about half of these will have moved into other areas such as management, sales or policy.”

A national shift to the single B.S.E. degree will result in more undergraduates studying engineering -- some for the love of engineering, some for its interdisciplinary implications. Engineering plus biology. Plus business. Plus public policy. Plus economics. Some will use engineering as preparation for other career paths in law, M.B.A. medicine and even politics.

More engineering majors will give us a greater proportion of our workforce that understands problem solving based on facts and reason, the constraints of creative solutions, and the challenging trade-offs of minimizing risks. It will result in engineers who obtain their professional graduate degree having better writing and communication skills and broader world views, and being able to see technology’s impact in a larger social context as a result of their undergraduate degree while also having depth of disciplinary technical expertise gained in their graduate studies.

College students are bright and strategic, and they see what our engineering profession does not: that we have created an educational path toward a profession that expects too much and offers too little to the student.

These oft-touted “Millennials” are values-based and independent. If we continue to give them too few choices, bright and capable students like my daughter will continue to vote with their feet by choosing not to study engineering.

Author/s: 
Pamela A. Eibeck
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Pamela A. Eibeck, president of University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif., previously served as dean of engineering at Texas Tech University

Whom Can You Trust on Climate Change?

The public and the media, for the most part, have failed to address a key point of the climate debate. Before attempting to educate anyone about how to interpret temperature and carbon dioxide data, there needs to be a better understanding of how scientific studies undergo quality control before being released to the general public. This is especially important in light of last week’s leak of controversial e-mails from prominent climate scientists.

The peer-review publication process is the mechanism the scientific community uses to prevent bad science, that is, to prevent data obtained with questionable methods or incorrect interpretations of data from being published. Solid science benefits from objective critical review, which can result in improved methods and more insightful interpretation of data. There is a body of literature, the peer-reviewed scientific journals, where the very best in scientific data and new discoveries gets published after being evaluated by independent experts working on similar or related problems in the same field.

In the initial stages of the peer-review process, an author submits a manuscript to a journal editor they believe is appropriate for their topic. The editor then typically selects two to four independent professionals to review the manuscript. Frequently, the editor will attempt to hand-pick reviewers who have published in the same field and, if possible, those who have reached alternative conclusions or developed contradictory hypotheses.

Reviewers are typically unpaid. More importantly, reviewers usually remain anonymous, and follow journal guidelines with respect to whether or not the manuscript should be accepted or rejected. For the most part, the peer-review process is geared in such a way that it is more likely that a good study will get rejected than that a bad study will get published.

Without the peer-review process, independent experts are unable to vet the information before it is foisted upon the public. This creates greater opportunity for money, politics, or mere opinions to taint the message. Hence, with respect to the climate change debate, for most people the issue should really boil down to whether or not one trusts the scientific review process. I don’t mean to insult people by suggesting they lack the capacity to understand climate data themselves. I’m an oceanographer and I still need to rely on the interpretation of more specialized experts for some climate change evidence.

A 2004 review of the scientific literature examined the 928 climate studies published in peer-reviewed journals from 1993-2003 to determine what evidence really exists for a human connection to climate change. This literature review, which itself was independently peer-reviewed before publication, found that 75 percent of the studies reported evidence of a human connection to climate change, 25 percent reported climate data with no bearing on the question, and, amazingly, not a single peer-reviewed study during that time period presented evidence refuting the idea of human-mediated climate change.

At times the media will attempt to raise concerns about the details of climate studies published in peer-reviewed journals. Given the rigorous and, at times, harsh nature of the review process, it is highly unlikely that these points were not considered by the expert reviewers who recommended a study for publication.

The e-mails that were stolen from a British university don’t seriously call the majority of climate change studies into question. The evidence and sources are far too diverse for one group of unprofessional scientists to be responsible for our view of climate change.

Obviously, the effect of these leaked e-mails is still very serious and reflects poorly on the scientists involved. It undermines the public trust in the unbiased ideal of the scientific process. Given that there is no better source for climate change information than the peer-reviewed literature, the real shame would be if the public grows to distrust the best information because of the apparent bias of a few scientists exposed in these e-mails.

Author/s: 
Kevin B. Johnson
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Kevin B. Johnson is associate professor of oceanography at the Florida Institute of Technology.

Physics, Blogs and Dogs

When I started my blog in 2002, I had no idea it would lead me to talking to my dog about physics. Let alone to writing a book about explaining physics to my dog.

I thought of the blog as a way to talk a bit about politics, pop culture, and academic science, and a place to let off a little steam as I went through the tenure process (I started the blog at the end of my first year as an assistant professor). Over the last seven and a half years, it's evolved into something much more, and I've begun to see it as an essential part of my responsibilities as a scientist.

A statement like that obviously presupposes some definition of the responsibilities of a scientist. Without getting too deeply into the many complex philosophical debates about the nature of science, my own view is that science is a four-step process for generating useful knowledge: the first step is to identify an interesting phenomenon in the natural world, the second to develop a model that might explain the phenomenon, the third to test the model by experiment or further observation, and the fourth to tell everyone the results of those tests.

The fourth step was the last one to become general practice -- as late as 1676, Robert Hooke published what we now know as "Hooke's Law" for elastic materials as a Latin cryptogram ("ceiinossttu," which unscrambles to "ut tensio, sic vis" for “as the stretch, so the force,” indicating that the force exerted by a spring is proportional to the amount it is stretched), so as to hide his results from his competitors while still claiming credit for the work. But it is not until wide and open dissemination of scientific results became the norm that we saw the tremendous explosion of scientific knowledge that has shaped the modern world. Broad publication of results is critical for the success of science, as it allows large numbers of scientists to build off the same body of knowledge, and to try many different approaches in parallel.

As essential as this step is, it is in many ways the weakest link in the scientific process today. While there are more scientific papers published today than ever before, a combination of technical sophistication and scientific specialization means that as far as the general public is concerned, modern scientific papers might as well be Latin cryptograms.

This is the famous "Two Cultures" problem pointed out by C.P. Snow a half century ago, and in many ways, the problems have only gotten worse since Snow's day. This is especially troubling given that the biggest problems facing human civilization today -- global climate change, pandemic disease, dwindling natural resources -- demand scientific solutions. Public understanding of science remains dangerously low, however, to the point where slick and cynical lobbyists can easily sow doubt about the state of global climate, or the safety of vaccines. When a shameless huckster like Glenn Beck can convince people not to vaccinate themselves or their children, in the face of decades of scientific evidence of the safety and efficacy of vaccines, something is dangerously wrong.

The only solution to this problem is to reinforce the fourth step of the scientific process, by disseminating scientific knowledge as widely as possible. We need to communicate science not only to other scientists, but also to the average voter, so they can have the knowledge base and critical faculties needed to distinguish solid science from cynical manipulations. This is a daunting task, though, both because all the professional incentives for academic scientists reward technical publication above all else -- you get tenure by publishing in Science, not Scientific American -- and also because modern science is a highly technical and mathematical enterprise, and even highly educated and intelligent people have a sort of learned helplessness when confronted with mathematics. Communicating science to the general public requires scientists to find a way to make science less intimidating, to find a voice that will make complex science seem more approachable to people who aren't comfortable with the mathematical language of modern science.

This is where blogs can play a role. Blogging gives scientists a platform from which they can reach a huge audience. On a fairly typical weekday, my blog is read by nearly 3,000 people, which is more than the entire enrollment at Union College, where I teach. When I write something about physics on the blog, it gets read by more people than I could ever hope to teach in my classes. Other science blogs have many times more daily visitors than I do, allowing the scientists who write them to share their results with thousands of people all around the world.

Blogging also gives scientists who are interested in communicating with the general public a chance to hone their communications skills. There are numerous feedback mechanisms available -- site traffic, comments, links from other blogs and social media platforms -- that allow blogging scientists to figure out what works, and practice communication to a broad audience. Through trial and error, they can find a voice that works for them, that will let them speak directly to people who wouldn't be interested in the technical details of a scientific journal article.

What voice will work is different for every scientist, and can be surprising. The voice might not even be human -- the voice that has been most successful for me is that of my dog, Emmy. In 2007, I wrote a couple of blog posts featuring imaginary conversations with my dog about aspects of quantum physics (Bunnies Made of Cheese and Many Worlds, Many Treats). These were read by tens of thousands of people, and led directly to a general audience physics book, How to Teach Physics to Your Dog. Strange as the concept may seem, I've found explaining physics via my dog to be extremely effective. She provides a way to keep even very abstract concepts grounded, and to break up dense and potentially intimidating discussions with an element of humor, making the science more approachable.

Writing as the dog is not something that ever would've occurred to me without the blog. Because I had the blog as a forum to try new things, even things that seemed kind of silly, I was able to experiment with different approaches to presenting physics, and stumble across something that worked exceptionally well for me. Any scientist with an interest in public communication of science should jump at the opportunities offered by running or writing for a blog.

Of course, no one book or individual blogging scientist will be enough to fix the problems science faces. We need many scientists willing to speak to the public, making use of the tools that the Internet offers. Not every scientist needs to be a public communicator -- some people will not have the inclination or the skills needed to convey complex technical ideas to a general audience, and that's fine -- but those scientists with an interest in public communication should have the opportunity to explore that, for the good of the scientific community, and the larger society.

Internet technologies remove most of the technical obstacles to scientists speaking directly to the public, but there are still significant roadblocks due to academic culture. Public communication is not highly regarded in academic science, and many junior faculty are explicitly warned against outreach programming and other public communication activities that "distract" them from producing technical publications. The only sure path to academic success is through publishing for a narrow audience of other scientists, not for a broad general audience.

Given the urgent threats that we now face, and the need for sensible decision making based on solid scientific evidence, though, we need to encourage faculty with an interest in communicating with the public to do just that. The consequences of a continued disconnect between voters and the scientific community are too great. We need to encourage and reward people who can help increase the public's understanding of science, and recognize public communication as a valid and even essential part of the scientific enterprise. We should ensure that scientists with an interest in public communication have the tools they need, and an opportunity to find a voice that works for them.

Even if that leads them to talk to their pets.

Author/s: 
Chad Orzel
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Chad Orzel is an associate professor of physics at Union College. His blog is Uncertain Principles. And his new book, How to Teach Physics to Your Dog, has just been released by Scribner.

Prized Vocations

I know a professor who enjoys as much success as any of his colleagues would ever want: an endowed chair, numerous books from major publishers, and a position in the leadership of his professional organization…. This is the short list. But he once pointed out that something was missing from his CV. He had never won an award.

This came up a few years ago, not long after I’d won one award and been listed as the finalist for another. My initial assessment was that he was pulling my leg. But there was something mildly forlorn in his manner, and this did not seem like irony. Though neither was it envy, exactly. My worldly status is pretty small beans; and heaven knows that no money was involved in my award -- unlike, say, receiving an endowed chair. (That goes on my tombstone: No Money Was Involved.)

And yet the element of longing was unmistakable. So much so that I have pondered it ever since -- not in regard to my friend’s personality, as such, but for what it implies about the role of prizes and awards in general. More than fifty years have passed since Michael Young coined the word “meritocracy” in a work of social satire. It was not meant as a term of praise, by any means. He worried that the rise of meritocracy would be destructive of social solidarity -- filling those at the bottom with despair, and those at the top with ever more perfect arrogance.

This was a good guess. The term has long since lost any critical force; the very notion of meritocracy now seems self-legitimating. But prescient as he was, Young did not anticipate the excess of desire that the system might generate – and not only among individuals. The giving and getting of awards creates its own expansive dynamic. As the number of awards proliferates, so do the committees required to nominate and judge them. (Upon receiving an award, one’s chances of being co-opted onto such a committee approach 100 percent.) This situation may be beyond satire’s power to illuminate, although the Nobel for Literature should certainly go to anyone who manages it.

Meanwhile, a recent issue of Theory, Culture, and Society contains a paper called “The Sociology of Vocational Prizes: Recognition as Esteem” by Nathalie Heinich, research director in sociology at the National Center for Scientific Research, in Paris. It draws on interviews with winners of French literary and scientific awards -- although the data so harvested appear in the paper almost as an afterthought.

An old joke has it that natural scientists discuss findings and social scientists discuss methodology. In this case, one might go a step further; the center of gravity is almost metaphysical. And appropriately enough, perhaps. Heinich’s argument is that understanding the social function of awards should go beyond more or less economic analogies -- i.e., the award increases one’s access to consumption goods, either directly or by enhancing one’s power -- and instead look to the dimension of “ ’intangible’ outcomes.”

But this is not a matter of what Heinich calls “mere psychology.” Rather, the granting and receiving of awards is part of the intricate and interdependent processes of social recognition within democratic societies -- about which, see half a dozen or so sociologists and philosophers (Norbert Elias, Axel Honnith, Nancy Fraser, etc.) on the dialectics of respect and esteem.

The paper feels like the prolegomenon to something much longer: a book that would interpret how the drive for prestige operates in institutions where the spirit of collegiality must reign. Heinich is, in short, framing questions rather than giving answers. But what’s interested me about the paper, after reading it three or four times, are the passages when you get a whiff of her fieldwork.

Beginning in 1985, Heinich interviewed a dozen French authors who had received major literary awards, including the Nobel. In 2002, she conducted another 16 interviews, this time with “mostly French-speaking” scientists who had received the annual Jeantat Prize for research in medicine and biology.

She defines both literature and science as “vocational” endeavors -- borrowing from the old religious sense that a vocation is a calling: one that involves both demands and rewards that are distinct from those of the market place. (On this point, an American would tend to use the word “professional,” although the differences of implication would require opening a very much longer parenthesis than this to discuss.)

But the relative isolation involved in writing makes it a more purely “vocational” activity than is the work of scientists, which is conditioned by access to institutions and infrastructure. And this -- by Heinich’s account – means that literary awards tend to have a much larger impact on recipients than do scientific awards.

“There is no formal recruitment procedure” for poets and novelists, she writes, “no regular permanent salary, no career marked out in advance, no official titles and ranks, no regular collaborators, and no work premises to go to every morning to meet with one’s colleagues. Given such a weak socialization of the activity and the uncertainty of its value, a big literary prize can be a great event in the life of a writer. For a scientist, however, winning a prize is only one element among many within the highly structured stages of professional recognition … [which include] laboratories, procedures of institutional recruitment, the system of varied and peer-reviewed publications, collective work, the material registration of proceedings, the regular handling of considerable financial resources, etc.”

This study in contrasts is not beyond all dispute. Writing is a solitary activity, but the literary life also has its own politics and economics, even among the poets.(Especially among the poets, is my impression.) Interviews with playwrights might have generated very different data about the relationship between vocation and socialization.

And Heinich seems to treat literary prizes as falling outside the normal routine of a writer’s life -- while the sheer proliferation of awards now makes them a routine part of one’s daily awareness. The announcement of winners for awards come by e-mail at a steady clip. Indeed, one arrived as I was revising this.

So there is plenty more work to be done on the sociology of literary awards. But let me go on to cite an interesting observation from Heinich’s interviews with 16 Jeantat Prize-winning scientists:

“Only three of them, including two non-native speakers of French, have hung it on their office wall. The rest have stored it ‘somewhere,’ sometimes ‘in a nice place’ (but not on the wall) in their apartment, sometimes only to be put away by their spouse, and sometimes to be later packed away in a drawer or box, where nearly all of these prize winners would be hard put to find it again. ‘Don’t ask me where it is!’ begs one of the awardees, while another confesses, ‘I’ve got a lot of plaques; they’re collecting dust at my place. And I think the Jeantat Prize must be there, too, collecting dust.’ ”

The sociologist notes that “this openly asserted discretion on the part of the interviewees concerning the display of prizes is clearly a pronounced cultural trait that distinguishes them from prize winners from the English-speaking world, who seem to have no qualms about proudly displaying their distinctions.”

Asked to account for this reluctance to put the award up for all to see, one of the Swiss interview subjects responded that it might be a lingering effect of Calvinism. Either an awful lot of French biologists are of Huguenot extraction (someone should look into this) or the Puritans had less effect on American culture than is commonly supposed.

Of course, another explanation is possible, such as Heinich’s hypothesis. Anglophone cultures are, she writes, “often marked by the competitive spirit.” In them, “victory consecrates the good player but does not, however, signify an agonistic wish to eliminate the adversary.” By contrast, there is “the value of cooperation in Latinate cultures, where formal equality prevails and any claim to excellence appears as a moral shortcoming.” Hence “victory must not be asserted by the winner, only designated, more or less clearly, by others.… On the one hand, then, a performance imperative reigns, and on the other hand, a modesty imperative.”

Perhaps -- though as a worldly colleague points out, Sarkozy's effort to turn French educational and research institutions into so many lean, mean, reputation-generating machines may yet tip that fine balance.

And on this side of the water, all the awards anyone may ever find wall space to hang will never quite silence the feeling that, after all, you'd best keep nose to the grindstone. "For the night cometh, when no man can work," as we recovering Calvinists sometimes say.

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

Liberal Arts II: The Economy Requires Them

Many of us committed to the liberal arts have been defensive for as long as we can remember.

We have all cringed when we have heard a version of the following joke: The graduate with a science degree asks, “Why does it work?”; the graduate with an engineering degree asks, “How does it work?”; the graduate with a liberal arts degree asks, “Do you want fries with that?”

We have responded to such mockery by proclaiming the value of the liberal arts in the abstract: it creates a well-rounded person, is good for democracy, and develops the life of the mind. All these are certainly true, but somehow each misses the point that the joke drives home. Today’s college students and their families want to see a tangible financial outcome from the large investment that is now American higher education. That doesn’t make them anti-intellectual, but simply realists. Outside of home ownership, a college degree might be the largest single purchase for many Americans.

There is a disconnect as parents and students worry about economic outcomes when too many of us talk about lofty ideals. More families are questioning both the sticker price of schools and the value of whole fields of study. It is natural in this environment for us to feel defensive. It is time, however, that we in the liberal arts understand this new environment, and rather than merely react to it, we need to proactively engage it. To many Americans the liberal arts have a luxury they feel they need to give up to make a living -- nice but impractical. We need to speak more concretely to the economic as well as the intellectual value of a liberal arts degree.

The liberal arts always situate graduates on the road for success. More Fortune 500 CEOs have had liberal arts B.A.s than professional degrees. The same is true of doctors and lawyers. And we know the road to research science most often comes through a liberal arts experience. Now more than ever, as employment patterns seem to be changing, we need to engage the public on the value of a liberal arts degree in a more forceful and deliberate way.

We are witnessing an economic shift that may be every bit as profound as the shift from farm to factory. Today estimates are that over 25 percent of the American population is working as contingent labor -- freelancers, day laborers, consultants, micropreneurs.

Sitting where we do it is easy to dismiss this number because we assume it comes from day laborers and the working class, i.e., the non-college-educated. But just look at higher education's use of adjuncts and you see the trend. The fastest-growing sector of this shift is in the formally white-collar world our students aspire to. This number has been steadily rising and is projected to continue its upward climb unchanged. We are living in a world where 9:00-5:00 jobs are declining, careers with one company over a lifetime are uncommon, and economic risk has shifted from large institutions to individuals. Our students will know a world that is much more unstable and fluid than the one of a mere generation ago.

We have known for many years that younger workers (i.e., recent college graduates) move from firm to firm, job to job and even career to career during their lifetime. What we are seeing now, however, is different. And for as many Americans, they are hustling from gig to gig, too. These workers, many our former students, may never know economic security, but they may know success. For many of the new-economy workers, success is measured by more than just money, as freedom, flexibility and creativity count too.

If this is the new economy our students are going to inherit, we as college and university administrators, faculty and staff need to take stock of the programs we offer (curricular as well as extracurricular) to ensure that we serve our students' needs and set them on a successful course for the future. The skills they will need may be different from those of their predecessors. Colleges and universities with a true culture of assessment already are making the necessary strategic adjustments.

In 1956, William Whyte, the noted sociologist, wrote The Organizational Man to name the developing shift in work for that generation. Whyte recognized that white-collar workers traded independence for stability and security. What got them ahead in the then-new economy was the ability to fit in (socialization) and a deep set of narrow vocational skills. Firms at the time developed career ladders, and successful junior executives who honed their skills and got along advanced up the food chain.

Today, no such career ladder exists. And narrow sets of skills may not be the ticket they once were. We are witnessing a new way of working developing before our eyes. Today, breadth, cultural knowledge and sensitivity, flexibility, the ability to continually learn, grow and reinvent, technical skills, as well as drive and passion, define the road to success. And liberal arts institutions should take note, because this is exactly what we do best.

For liberal arts educators, this economic shift creates a useful moment to step out of the shadows. We no longer need to be defensive because what we have to offer is now more visibly useful in the world. Many of the skills needed to survive and thrive in the new economy are exactly those a well-rounded liberal arts education has always provided: depth, breadth, knowledge in context and motion, and the search for deeper understanding.

It will not be easy to explain to future students and their parents that a liberal arts degree may not lead to a particular “job” per se, because jobs in the traditional sense are disappearing. But, we can make a better case about how a liberal arts education leads to both a meaningful life and a successful career.

In this fluid world, arts and sciences graduates may have an advantage. They can seek out new opportunities and strike quickly. They are innovative and nimble. They think across platforms, understand society and culture, and see technology as a tool rather than an end in itself. In short, liberal arts graduates have the tools to make the best out of the new economy. And, above all, we need to better job identifying our successes, our alumni, as well as presenting them to the public. We need to ensure that the public knows a liberal arts degree is still, and always has been, a ticket to success.

This could be a moment for the rebirth of the liberal arts. For starters, we are witnessing exciting new research about the economy that is situating the discussion more squarely within the liberal arts orbit, and in the process blurring disciplinary boundaries. These scholars are doing what the American studies scholar Andrew Ross has called “scholarly reporting,” a blend of investigative reporting, social science and ethnography, as a way to understand the new economy shift. Scholars such as the sociologists Dalton Conley and Sharon Zurkin and the historian Bryant Simon offer new models of engaged scholarship that explain the cultural parameters of the new economy. We need to recognize and support this research because increasingly we will need to teach it as the best way to ensure our students understand the moment.

We also need to be less territorial, and recognize that the professional schools are not the enemy. They have a lot to offer our students. Strategic partnerships between professional schools and the arts and sciences enrich both and offer liberal arts students important professional opportunities long closed off to them. We also need to find ways to be good neighbors to the growing micropreneurial class, either by providing space, wifi, or interns. Some schools have created successful incubators, which can jump-start small businesses and give their students important ground-floor exposure to the emerging economy.

Today’s liberal arts graduates will need to function in an economy that is in some ways smaller. Most will work for small firms and many will simply work on their own. They will need to multitask as well as blend work and family. And, since there will be little budget or time for entry-level training, we need to ensure that all our students understand the basics of business even if they are in the arts. We also might consider preparing our graduates as if they were all going to become small business owners, because in a sense many of them are going to be micropreneurs.

Author/s: 
Richard A. Greenwald
Author's email: 
newsroom@insidehighered.com

Richard A Greenwald is dean of the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies, director of university partnerships, and professor of history at Drew University in Madison, N.J. His next book is entitled The Micropreneurial Age: The Permanent Freelancer and the New American (Work)Life.

A Time of Urgency

Statistics about blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans preparing for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) paint a troubling picture. Members of these groups make up 29 percent of the national population, and they are among the fastest-growing groups in the country. Yet they represent only 9 percent of the nation’s college-educated science and engineering workforce.

As I go around the country, colleagues in higher education often tell me they know that few students from underrepresented minority groups are succeeding in these fields. They want to know what they can do to move beyond talking about these issues to substantive actions that will lead to results. The National Academies recently issued a report that focused on this problem. It lays out a number of recommendations in areas ranging from undergraduate retention to teacher preparation. It delineates specific roles for different types of two- and four-year institutions, including minority-serving institutions, predominantly white universities, and community colleges, and it addresses challenges at every level, pre-K-20, as well as the roles of federal and state governments and local institutions.

The report proposes that undergraduate retention and graduation must be the top priority. In particular, it recommends policies and programs that will increase the number of underrepresented minorities succeeding in STEM fields by providing strong financial, social, and academic support. The financial assistance should be provided through higher education institutions, along with federal programs that encourage academic, social, and professional development. Students in STEM fields need financial support so they can focus on their education and on research instead of working outside jobs to make ends meet.

Many might be surprised that underrepresented minorities aspire to earn STEM degrees at roughly the same rate as other groups. However, only about 20 percent of underrepresented minority students complete undergraduate STEM programs within five years. And while white and Asian American students are more successful, their completion rates are also troubling, with only 33 and 42 percent of those students, respectively, finishing STEM degrees in five years. The country is struggling to remain globally competitive in science and technology. Retaining and graduating undergraduates of all races in STEM fields is clearly an American issue.

The report makes a clear call for leadership in higher education: "For each higher education institution that must now take action, the academic leadership — regents, trustees, presidents, provosts, deans, and department chairs — must articulate underrepresented minority participation as a key commitment both in the institutional mission and in everyday affairs in order to set a tone that raises awareness and effort…. Faculty buy-in is essential."

An initial step in attacking this problem is simply engaging key groups in honest dialogue about the goal of increasing student success. Presidents, provosts, deans, and department chairs can show their interest in the subject by facilitating discussions with students, faculty, and staff. It helps when leaders can ask good questions: Why is it that such small percentages of all these different groups currently complete STEM degrees? Are colleagues concerned about the low percentages, or is it just accepted that this is the way it is? While one concern is students’ having to work to pay for their education, other questions involve the quality of the teaching and learning on campuses.

Holding focus groups can help leaders gain a clearer understanding of the problems. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in the late 1980s, many minority students were discouraged by limited prospects for success in STEM fields. For example, even the highest-achieving black students tended to earn Cs or below in upper-level science classes.

To understand the problem, we conducted focus groups with students, faculty, and staff, resulting in many changes, both short- and long-term. We created a scholarship program that emphasizes high expectations, active faculty engagement, peer support and undergraduate research experience. We started (1) encouraging students to study in groups; (2) strengthening tutorial centers; (3) encouraging faculty members to give students feedback earlier in the semester so students could make adjustments; (4) emphasizing the need to communicate with incoming students about the demands they would face in STEM fields; and (5) creating a framework to support and encourage them in their crucial first year.

More recently, faculty redesigned the curriculum in our chemistry department and opened the Chemistry Discovery Center, which emphasizes active learning and collaboration. The rate of students scoring Cs or better in introductory chemistry classes quickly jumped from about 70 percent to almost 85 percent. As a result of this success, other STEM departments are redesigning their first-year courses and making use of a new facility known as CASTLE (College Active Science Teaching and Learning Environment), which draws on best practices involving technology, collaboration, and active learning.

Grades and statistics highlight specific parts of the problem, but they don’t tell the whole story. We need to understand how our students are doing emotionally, and how they view their experience in and out of the classroom. For those who are graduating, but barely making it, we have to ask if that student will have the confidence to succeed in a STEM career or to pursue a graduate degree in a STEM discipline. And we need to understand the different issues facing subgroups, e.g., women in computer science, African American males in engineering, or Hispanic women in chemistry. Simply looking at overall averages will not give us enough information to effect needed changes.

In addition to examining what is happening at our own universities, it is vital to look at best practices elsewhere. Campuses that succeed tend to look at effective programs and to collaborate. We can all learn from each other about success stories and challenges. Programs that have been increasing the number of underrepresented minorities majoring in STEM fields and excelling in post-graduate studies take a multifaceted approach that combines financial, emotional, and professional support. It is important to build a community of students who work together in labs, and who also form study groups to master coursework.

The report recognizes the important role of faculty in attracting students to these disciplines, and the necessity that they support these goals. It takes researchers to produce researchers, so faculty members must open up their labs and provide opportunities for undergraduates to become involved. Research has shown that these experiences often spark the interest of students who go on to careers in STEM fields. Tenured faculty, in particular, must also be encouraged to take an interest in the success of their students. Campuses can reinforce this commitment to success and diversity by recognizing faculty who reach out to students and engage them in research, and who also mentor other faculty as they engage students.

The challenge of bringing more underrepresented minorities into STEM fields is a project vital to our nation’s economy and security. Leaders should bring to this effort the same rigor that we bring to any scientific project, continually assessing outcomes and sharing what works. As we strengthen teaching and learning for underrepresented groups and improve experiences in first-year science classes, we will find that the practices identified or developed will be beneficial to all students.

Changing our expectations about who excels in science will not be easy. The only way we can succeed is if the leaders of our campuses can see the challenge as a national imperative. At present, the U.S. ranks 20th among 24 countries in the number of 24-year-olds who have earned a first degree in science or engineering. The report argues that a vital aspect of increasing the number of Americans with STEM bachelor’s degrees from 6 to 10 percent will be to quadruple the number of underrepresented minorities who complete these degrees, simply because these groups represent a growing proportion of the national population. Far more students aspire to become scientists and engineers than most people realize. The sad fact is that more than half leave in the first year. Many are fairly well-prepared, but they become discouraged in their introductory STEM courses. We need to focus our attention on why they leave and on strengthening teaching at this level.

The study has concluded, and now the work begins. A good first step is to make changes on our campuses so that the first-year students who arrive interested in science and engineering are supported in achieving their goals. By focusing on these students, we can increase the number of scientists and engineers, and enhance our nation’s competitiveness.

Author/s: 
Freeman A. Hrabowski III
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Freeman A. Hrabowski III is president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He is chair of the National Academies Committee on Underrepresented Groups and the Expansion of the Science and Engineering Workforce Pipeline.

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - Sciences/Tech/Engineering/Math
Back to Top