teachinglearning

The End of Science 'Permadocs'?

The number of postdoctoral fellows in biology and biomedical sciences declined for the first time in more than 30 years, according to a new paper in The FASEB Journal, a publication of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. The study says that even though the number of Ph.D. students continued to grow from 2010-13, the period surveyed, the number of postdocs declined 5.5 percent. “For some newly minted Ph.D. students, eschewing a postdoc may reflect a rational response to a tight academic labor market with low compensation and uncertain prospects for success,” lead author Howard Garrison, FASEB’s director of public affairs, said in a statement.

Garrison and his co-authors found that the number of postdocs in the biological or biomedical sciences at U.S. doctorate-granting institutions increased annually from 1979 through 2010. But the postdoctoral population fell from 40,970 in 2010 to 38,719 in 2013. While men and women and U.S. and foreign postdocs all decreased in number, the sharpest decline was among U.S. men, whose ranks dropped 10.4 percent from 2010-13.

The authors say that the postdoc drop did not coincide with reductions in graduate students or visas for foreign workers, but may be consistent with reductions in the number of research grants, independent labs and job announcements over the same period. A major study last year called for better pay and mentorship for postdocs, who increasingly are expected to do one or more fellowships on their way to faculty positions. Some have dubbed this the “permadoc” trend.

Report on Competencies Sought by Employers

A report last month from the Committee on Economic Development examined which competencies employers find essential in the workers they want to hire, as well as which competencies are in short supply. The committee is a nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy organization led by businesses interested in education, health and global competition.

The report found more than 90 percent of business leaders found problem solving and the ability to work with others of diverse backgrounds the most important competencies that led to being hired at their organizations. Those two areas were followed closely by critical thinking and teamwork or collaboration as important to have. The survey also revealed that critical thinking and problem solving are both essential skills, but also the hardest to find among applicants. The easiest skills to find, but also less essential, are technical skills, media literacy and proficiency with new technologies.

Of 52 CED members who responded to the survey, 35 percent said they were "very interested" in hiring students from a competency-based education program, another 25 percent said they were "somewhat interested" and 8 percent said they were "mostly uninterested" or "not at all interested." The rest were neutral on the subject.

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Analysis Finds Colleges Do Teach Critical Thinking

A new meta-analysis, in which numerous relevant studies are reviewed and summarized together, has found that colleges do succeed at teaching critical thinking. Christopher R. Huber and Nathan R. Kuncel, both of the University of Minnesota, published the results of their meta-analysis in the journal Review of Educational Research. They reviewed 71 research reports published over the past 48 years, and found that students’ critical thinking skills improve substantially over a typical college experience.

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NEH seeks to spur humanities Ph.D. training beyond traditional career paths

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Can the NEH change the orientation of doctoral programs in the humanities?

Reprimanded for Assigning Affordable Textbooks?

A faculty member at California State University at Fullerton is fighting back after he was reprimanded for assigning affordable textbooks in a math course, The Orange County Register reported. Alain Bourget, assistant professor of mathematics, reportedly picked two textbooks -- one priced at $76, the other free -- in an introductory linear algebra and differential equations course over the $180 textbook co-written by the chair and vice chair of the math department. The decision "violated policy and went against orders from the provost and former dean of the math and sciences college," according to the newspaper. Bourget, who did not respond to a request for comment, has filed a grievance and will attend a hearing on Friday.

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National Census of Writing releases survey results

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The National Census of Writing, a survey of 900 colleges and universities, releases results on the state of writing centers, programs and the people behind them.

Moody's: Boot Camp Experiment Is Revenue Opportunity

Moody's, the credit rating agency, this week weighed in on a recently announced U.S. Department of Education experiment to allow federal financial aid to flow to a handful of partnerships between colleges and nontraditional providers, including skills boot camps and those that offer online courses. The experiment is "credit positive," Moody's said, and "will enhance and diversify revenue opportunities for universities, with nondegree credentials attracting new participants and supplementing traditional degree programs."

The limited availability of federal financial aid will accelerate the spread of alternative credentials, said Moody's, while also magnifying the potential upside of those credentials.

Cal State U System Expands E-Portfolio Option

The California State University System will make electronic portfolios -- e-portfolios -- available to all its students and graduates, via a three-year agreement the system has signed with Portfolium, a cloud-based platform. The tool will help Cal State students display their academic and professional accomplishments in a digital format, the company said, including ones that aren't easily captured on a traditional résumé or transcript.

The use of digital portfolios is becoming popular. And two higher education groups are exploring how to bulk up the college transcript with more information about student learning and "competencies." At Cal State, more than 80,000 students already have used Portfolium to begin creating digital profiles.

Online learning for underserved students in focus at International Conference for Online Learning

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Consortium will award $2.5 million to faculty members and institutions who help underserved students succeed in online classes -- a much-discussed topic at this year's International Conference for Online Learning.

Research and recommendations about encouraging innovation (essay)

Can innovation be taught?

I first asked that question about 15 years ago, as the first wave of entrepreneurship programs at many of the nation’s top research universities got underway. I was directing a program that allowed students to pursue work concurrently in engineering and business administration. It was becoming clear that scientists and engineers could, indeed, be taught to significantly accelerate the process of bringing promising new technologies to market.

But I knew that entrepreneurship and innovation are different, even if related. Both require seeing something that’s not there: ideas and solutions to improve life, new markets and so on. But whereas innovators focus on creation of value, entrepreneurs focus on realization of that value. The path of the entrepreneur is more or less the traditional path of business development: conducting market research, raising capital, developing long-term marketing and business plans, and so on. And college and university courses on entrepreneurship mirror that -- covering subjects such as marketing, finance and the like. In contrast, the creativity, passion and broad vision necessary for successful innovation suggest that the very idea of a “traditional pathway” to teaching innovation may be highly unlikely.

Yet, over the years, I couldn’t help wondering: Could there be an Institute for Innovation alongside the entrepreneurship programs at major research universities? Are there some discernible patterns behind successful innovation that could help educators everywhere develop innovative mind-sets in our students? As President Obama has noted more than once, innovation is the lifeblood of American global leadership, but with the rest of the world catching up to America economically and technologically, more work is needed to maintain that leadership.

I quickly discovered that the literature on innovation was sparse. Moreover, it was missing a crucial component: reflections from innovators themselves. Thus, with support from the National Science Foundation and encouragement from Charles M. Vest, then president of the National Academy of Engineering, I began what became to be the Educate to Innovate research project.

The project was conducted in three stages:

Interviews. We developed questions and conducted extensive interviews with 60 established innovators. They had experience in industry or academe, or both. Some of them are well known -- for example, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Stanford University President John Hennessy and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. But most are recognized as innovators within narrower circles, such as Regina Dugan, senior vice president of engineering at Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group and the former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a federal agency known for innovation.

Workshop. More than 60 leaders from all levels of education (K-12, undergraduate and graduate), as well as industry and government participated in a two-day workshop at the National Academy of Engineering in October 2013. Those leaders discussed the data compiled from the interviews and formulated action items and recommendations.

Data analysis and publication. We carefully analyzed the data from the interviews and the workshop and the National Academies Press published it earlier this year (which is available as a free, downloadable PDF).

Broadly speaking, our research reaffirmed my intuition: innovation cannot be taught like math or writing, or even in the current framework of entrepreneurship education. But it can be inculcated by focusing on the interplay of the skills, experiences and environments of successful innovators. More specifically:

Skills. Unsurprisingly, we found that innovators tend to have creativity, curiosity, deep knowledge of a field (invariably more than one), intellectual flexibility and the ability to think outside the box of a defined discipline. But we also found that they are generally risk takers who don’t fear failure (although many emphasized that they don’t like failure). They also are good at selling ideas -- a crucial skill for raising funds and building a team. Innovation is, after all, teamwork.

Experiences. Again, some findings were unsurprising: innovators have strong mentors and role models as students and young employees, and they generally had a lot of unstructured time while growing up. The ones with whom we spoke emphasized gaining industrial or real-world experience that helped them focus on concrete problems and learn how to function effectively as a team member. They also emphasized the importance of interdisciplinary collaborations as ways to gain new knowledge and see people and problems from many different angles.

Environments. Environments laid the crucial foundation for the experiences and skills innovators need. The interviewees emphasized office designs that encourage informal discussion and collaboration along with explicit encouragement of innovation. Those in education -- especially at the university level -- described the importance of labs, buildings and centers structured around themes, rather than skills. What was surprising, and reassuring, was how intensely innovators perceived the value of environments -- familial to community to academic -- that place a strong emphasis on education.

The report contains much more: more insights, more stories and a slew of recommendations. But in the end, it is preliminary. We need to conduct more definitive research and take some major steps to incorporate the education of innovation into our existing curriculums. C. Daniel Mote Jr., current president of the National Academy of Engineering, put our work into perspective. “Even if it mostly confirmed our intuitive understanding of innovation, it’s opened the doors to more definitive research, and that can only help our country,” he said.

Now is the time for that research on such topics as how best to translate our study findings into practical and implementable solutions (something that I am keenly interested in). What are criteria and metrics for assessing their effectiveness? The research on understanding innovation itself needs to be advanced. More research is also required to understand how to leverage individual innovation capacity to enhance the innovation capacity of groups and teams; diverse teams are made of, and do well because of, individual differences.

Our interviews also suggest that some people in higher education think that our academic systems must be completely overhauled for us to be able to teach innovation. However, I believe we can, and we must, start within our current systems. We need a two-pronged approach -- one that starts by updating and modifying existing courses and infrastructure, and another top-down one that focuses on systemic changes to the institutional culture, environment and thought processes. For example, emphasizing innovation in all aspects and across all members of the institution, promoting environments and activities to discourage the fear of failure (not the same as encourage failure), and recognizing that our colleges and universities provide transformative experiences, but often outside of the classroom.

For now, we don’t need to delay, wondering how or where to start, or to wait to find success stories. We can get started right away by building on activities that we already do well.

Enhancing experiential learning. Many of those whom we interviewed agreed that the craft of innovation is forged through real-world experience. Colleges and universities are already providing students with such experience through capstone projects, industry internships, global programs and other opportunities. For example, Purdue University, where I serve as provost, has developed Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS), an experiential learning program that places students in environments where they are challenged to innovate. The students in the program have developed custom prosthetics for injured people and helped Habitat for Humanity improve the energy efficiency of its structures. Deans and department heads must help enhance, improve and scale up this aspect of our educational programs by purposefully designing educational environments for desired outcomes, including encouraging students to take risks and learn from failures.

Modifying existing courses. Institutions can, and should, look at modifying relevant technical courses. One idea is to incorporate some history of technological innovation in specific courses so that students know about and connect to the innovator. By detailing the lives of scientists through case studies, the innovation process becomes humanized, and students begin to see innovation as possible. In interviews, innovators cautioned against focusing on successes of innovations and emphasized the need to teach stories of failures that often lay the foundation for successful innovation.

An example is the course Introduction to Solid State Chemistry, taught by Donald R. Sadoway, a professor of materials chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Not only does he teach the history of innovation and provide case histories of failure, he places science in its cultural and historical context. As the syllabus states, it is not “‘just a chemistry class’ -- it’s a chemistry-centered class that integrates examples from the world around us, in the arts and humanities, the human stories behind the science, and the applications to engineering and emerging technologies.”

Using guidelines for problem selection. Determining what problems to pursue and articulating compelling ideas is the key to innovation. It is important to teach students how to identify good problems and articulate ideas. That said, the innovators we interviewed reminded us that problem selection, while crucial, is not a straightforward process or an exact science. They recommended exploring at the interfaces of disciplines to identify problems worth pursuing. Most importantly, all interviewees felt that good problems are derived by building off areas that the individual deeply cares about. Thus, one approach might be to develop guidelines or checklists that faculty members, and by extension students, can use for identification of good problems.

Our report contains some guidelines that the innovators have suggested. They include:

  • Spend a considerable amount of time thinking about and defining the problem.
  • Identify where a need exists.
  • Gather input from those the innovation is meant to help.
  • Follow your instinct, intuition and passion.
  • Investigate failure and ask yourself, “Is there a path that will lead to success?”
  • Know when to quit or change direction.
  • Target areas where there is less activity.
  • Choose problems based on their impact on humanity.

Innovation has always flourished in the United States, but we must not take it for granted. Our research shows that it is important and feasible to help potential innovators discover their talents and contribute to the nation’s capacity for innovation. With an educational culture that encourages and promotes innovation, America can sustain its technological leadership for generations to come.

Deba Dutta is provost and executive vice president for academic affairs and diversity at Purdue University.

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