Science / Engineering / Mathematics

Essay on role of collaboration and internships

A critical challenge to American industry, and hence to our competitiveness in the global innovation economy, is the availability of a talented workforce. Despite historically high unemployment, the U.S. continues to experience worker shortages across a wide spectrum of jobs — in large part because students don't understand the wealth of opportunity available to them in growing fields.

Consider the life sciences industry, one of the fastest growing industries in the world, which has a difficult time finding qualified workers. In Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick created the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) in order to promote job creation and scientific advancement. Shortly thereafter, the MLSC created the Internship Challenge Program to encourage paid internships for students majoring in the life sciences.

The creation of the internship program reflects strong consensus views held by such organizations as the Council on Competitiveness, which determined that a highly skilled workforce is vital to our economic future. It’s also a smart way to show students that one doesn’t need a Ph.D. in biology to have a very satisfying career in the life sciences.

The Internship Challenge Program has been an immediate success, with both companies and students responding in robust numbers (1,300 applications for 219 internships in the most recent round). Students from my own institution, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, have won the largest number of internships in all three years of the program’s existence, and I have been asked the wonderful question, Why?

The answer is tied to a philosophy of education that, I believe, needs to be more prevalent in higher education. That is, at WPI we emphasize cooperation among students, not competition, focusing on what can be achieved through collaborative learning and achievement. This collaborative approach yields remarkable results and sets the tone for the remaining undergraduate experience, focusing not just on the acquisition of knowledge but on how to put that knowledge to use.

This collaborative spirit also pervades WPI’s Life Sciences and Bioengineering Center, home to WPI’s academic programs in the life sciences, which also offers incubator space for start-up firms in the life sciences, giving our students a real-world opportunity to see and experience the industry for themselves. These experiences make our students passionate about getting into research labs early on, as they have a better understanding of both the intellectual and technical skills they will need to tackle open-ended research problems in the life sciences. Working alongside start-up firms offers an experience that goes well beyond those of conventional science lab courses, providing students many added benefits, such as acquiring professional mentors who can provide career guidance and references rich in practical insights.

A focus on collaborative, team-based work, including interdisciplinary thinking and communication (plus the constant press of deadlines due to our short, seven-week terms), fits well with the demands of the typical biotech start-up or even a more mature life science company. People need to work well together, generate good ideas, make decisions quickly, and move projects forward at a rapid pace, whether as students or in the working world.

Emphasizing such skills gives students a lot of confidence, as documented in their assessments of our curriculum. Equally important, these students have a measurable increase in comfort when speaking with people in positions of authority, which makes for favorable impressions in interviews for both internships and jobs. Best of all, it exposes our students to real-world opportunities within an industry that is actively and aggressively seeking these skills and knowledge.

Dennis D. Berkey is President and CEO of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

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University of North Carolina at Greensboro

'The Forum and the Tower'

“It is evident,” declared Aristotle, expecting no argument, that “two ways of life are the ones intentionally chosen by those human beings who are most ambitious with a view to virtue, both in former times and the present; the two I mean are the political and the philosophic.”

The strange word here is “virtue,” which carries a lot of baggage for the modern reader. Anyone too preoccupied with virtue is, by contemporary standards, presumably guilty of something until proven otherwise, and maybe not even then.

So it bears keeping in mind that, in Aristotle’s usage, “virtue” is almost a piece of technical jargon. It refers to a form of excellence that, as you pursue it, leads toward profound happiness and a richer life – a condition of human flourishing.

Being “ambitious with respect to virtue,” then, is not as grim as it may sound. Likewise, we have to shed a little cynicism in order to understand why Aristotle would single out politics and philosophy as ideal venues for pursuing that ambition. He understood them, not as professions, let alone as rackets, but rather as activities manifesting and enhancing our nature as social and rational animals.

At the same time, politics and philosophy pull in different directions -- one toward civic engagement, the other into deep and prolonged reflection. Aristotle was all about finding a happy medium, but in the final analysis he thought that intellectual contemplation was the highest form of virtue/excellence. (This is hardly surprising. He was a philosopher, after all.)

Mary Ann Glendon’s The Forum and the Tower: How Scholars and Politicians Have Imagined the World, from Plato to Eleanor Roosevelt, published by Oxford University Press, is a meditation on this theme from Aristotle by someone who has served as both an academic and a diplomat. (Glendon, a professor at the Harvard University Law School, was a U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican during George W. Bush’s second term.)

The book consists of a series of biographical essays on figures who moved between scholarship and statecraft, or at least desired to bring them together. “History provides few examples of prominent political actors who, like Cicero or Edmund Burke, are remembered for important contributions to political thought as well as for distinguished public service,” Glendon writes. “As for political theorists who have ventured into politics, some of the most eminent – Plato, Tocqueville, and Weber, for example – were strikingly ineffective in the public arena.” She devotes a chapter to each of these figures, plus a few others, drawing as much on their memoirs and private papers as their books or speeches. In style and spirit, The Forum and the Tower is much closer to a book like Will Durant's The Story of Philosophy (1926) than to a monograph.

The author describes the essays as “loosely linked,” which seems fair a fair description. Unlike Aristotle -- who is forever generating categorical distinctions, weighing alternatives, and lining things up neatly – Glendon is not particularly driven to analysis. Her examples from history converge on a simple point: the politician and the serious thinker embody distinct capacities, seldom found together in a single person. That principle was already recognized in ancient Athens. And Max Weber had pretty much the last word on the subject in two lectures, “Science as a Vocation” (1917) and “Politics as a Vocation” (1919). Glendon's discussion of Weber, near the end of the book, epitomizes her concern with the difficulty of bridging the distance between “the forum” (where political decisions are made) and “the tower” (as in, ivory).

In particular, Weber’s thoughts on politics as an “ethics of responsibility” seems framed as a warning. The political actor “has to be able to deal with the world as it is,” she writes, “taking human frailty into account and even using it for his purposes. He must be able to bear the irrationality of the word in which evil sometimes comes from good and good sometimes comes from evil. He has to understand that the attainment of good ends may even require using morally dubious or at least dangerous means, and that if one chases after the ultimate good, then the good he seeks may be damaged or discredited for generations…. What is decisive, said Weber, ‘is the trained relentlessness in viewing the realities of life and the ability to face such realities and to measure up to them inwardly.’”

She seems to be saying in response to Aristotle that no matter how highly you rate contemplation, the political leader's task requires the rarest virtue.

A few words about the politics of the author, and of the book itself, seem in order. In 2009, Glendon declined the Laetare Medal from the University of Notre Dame when she learned that the institution would be granting an honorary degree to President Obama at the same ceremony. I read The Forum and the Tower without knowing this, though with hindsight it is illuminating.

Glendon names two exceptional cases of leaders who also produced lasting works of scholarship, Cicero and Edmund Burke. Both, as it happens, were conservatives. She identifies Henry Kissinger as another “statesman-scholar,” which is certainly one thing you can call him, if not the one I find springing to mind. The citations from secondary literature are infrequent and tend to come from figures such as Harvey Mansfield, Thomas Pangle, Conor Cruise O’Brien, and Paul Johnson – all of them reliably conservative.

Eleanor Roosevelt appears in the subtitle of the book, rather anomalously. She makes a brief appearance in the final chapter, which is devoted to the Lebanese philosopher Charles Malik’s role the United Nations committee that drew up the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The former First Lady chaired the committee; its work is the subject of an earlier book by Glendon. But the whole chapter feels a bit tacked on – almost an effort to impose some balance at the last possible moment. In a way the book really ends with Max Weber’s brooding thoughts on the good and evil that men do.

But that leaves me wishing that Glendon had ventured beyond popularized history and rather broad points about the gap between statecraft and the life of the mind. It would be a better book for addressing her own experience in shuttling between forum and tower -- and for posing questions about the relationship between conservative thought and action. "If one chases after the ultimate good, then the good he seeks may be damaged or discredited for generations" would serve as a critique of various right-wing luminaries, but it's never clear whether or not Glendon means it as one.

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

The Time for Science

It's a fact. The economy just plain stinks.

And as we as a nation contend with foreclosures, high unemployment and an increasing cost of living, it's hard to predict when we will see true economic recovery. Many long-term solutions -- from Democrats and Republicans alike -- have been proposed, but the key to maintaining our economic edge lies not with politics, but with science.

Science is our way out.

Consider this. The chemical industry alone creates 2 percent of U.S. GDP and exports over $145 billion of products per year, according to the American Chemistry Council. Not convinced? Think about the major challenges that face our society today. Answering the country's energy needs, climate change problems, and the increasing costs of health care will require new advances in science -- which, in turn, will create jobs.

The idea isn't new. Politicians and academics have been calling for a renewed national commitment to science for years. In 2008, Princeton University’s president, Shirley M. Tilghman, hosted a roundtable with business and political leaders to address "why now may be the most important time in the last three or four decades that we make a very serious investment in the kind of innovation and creativity that have always fueled this country and this economy." And, earlier this year, President Obama's State of the Union address highlighted the importance of research and development in science and technology. "This is our generation's Sputnik moment," he said. "We'll invest in biomedical research, information technology, and especially clean energy technology -- an investment that will strengthen our security, protect our planet, and create countless new jobs for our people."

Clearly, science demands our attention now. And as educators we have a special obligation to our future leaders. Now is the time, despite limited resources and uncertain economic conditions, to make science a priority -- at every level, from preschool through graduate school, and every type of institution. It may seem counterintuitive in the midst of today's economic turmoil, but now is the time to make significant investments in science education, with long-term sustainability as the ultimate goal. In other words, to be competitive in a global marketplace, where American children are lagging behind in science and math skills, we need to find ways not only to educate scientists, but also to ensure that teachers are well-equipped. To that end, further science funding cuts are not acceptable. In fact, now is the time when we should be investing more in science.

Instead, we're waiting for details of a new debt deal that could dramatically decrease financial support for science beginning in 2013. While it is still uncertain exactly how, and which, science agencies will be impacted, it is clear that $900 billion in federal discretionary funds, which includes support for science agencies, will be cut. What's worse, if the super committee fails to reach an agreement by the November 23 deadline, across-the-board cuts would be made. According to a recent article in Nature, that would mean an 11-percent reduction in funding for federal science agencies, and single-digit grant-acceptance rates from places like the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. It's easy -- and frightening -- to imagine the impact of such devastating cuts on opportunities for students and faculty at colleges across the nation.

It is important for colleges and universities to promote better public policy on science – and also to push ahead with improving their own programs. At the College of the Holy Cross, a small, Jesuit, liberal arts institution in Massachusetts, where I have taught for 27 years, we're preparing for changes in federal funding for science, but we're not willing to let them profoundly affect what we do. We believe that liberal arts colleges, in particular, have a special role to play in the future of science. For decades, scientists have benefited from the liberal arts curriculum, which exposes them to multiple disciplines -- essential for a future where complex issues will continue to cross the narrow confines of a major or specialized field. We recently completed a $64 million dollar, state-of-the-art Integrated Science Complex. We're expanding summer research opportunities for undergraduate students through support from our alumni, and we're hiring tenure-track faculty.

Some have criticized the value of a liberal arts education, particularly in a bad economy where jobs are scarce. But the skills students gain from a liberal arts education transcend fluctuations in the market. Others have dismissed the importance of science and research -- often the same people who carry cell phones, use computers and benefit from advances in healthcare.

What’s more, the country has several leading Republican presidential candidates — from Texas Governor Rick Perry to Minnesota Congresswomen Michele Bachmann, among others — who cast doubts on things like evolution and man-made climate change. And their opinions are upheld by an increasing number of Americans. For example, a Gallup poll released last week showed that 11 percent fewer (50 percent) Americans think humans are partially responsible for global warming now than in 2007-8.

At a time when the influence of science and technology, and the potential for life-changing breakthroughs, has never been greater, American society seems to be moving in the opposite direction.

As we look to the future of the sciences at Holy Cross, we are confident that we will see returns on our investments for years to come: We'll attract the best student scientists, we'll recruit talented and highly respected faculty, and we'll graduate well-rounded students who have experience in the lab, understand the value of collaboration and are poised to be leaders in their field. With a liberal arts-based science education, our graduates will emerge as active and informed citizens, fully prepared to solve tomorrow's important scientific problems. Will yours?

And more importantly, will America be ready for them?

Author/s: 
Richard S. Herrick
Author's email: 
info@insidehighered.com

Richard Herrick is a professor of chemistry at the College of the Holy Cross.

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