Sciences/Tech/Engineering/Math

Scholar complains of how long it can take to publish interdisciplinary science

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Researcher sees his experience as emblematic of challenges of publishing interdisciplinary science.

Q&A with authors of new book on balancing home and work life as an academic scientist

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New book about balancing work and home life as an academic scientist warns that failure to address the challenge will cost institutions and science as a whole.

New NSF data show which universities are up and which down in total R&D expenditures

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Within NSF’s rankings of top 25 institutions in R&D expenditures, 14 institutions are up at least one spot, while six are down at least a notch.

Colleges need to find new ways to engage students in STEM fields (essay)

The STEM Fields

As the CEO of a tech start-up and a former professor, here’s what keeps me awake at night: half of college students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and math end up dropping those courses and switching to another major. That is disturbing, not only because I am personally passionate about STEM innovators’ potential to improve lives, but also because it is no secret that we are in dire need of a STEM-proficient work force. If we continue at this rate of attrition, in the next decade, America will need approximately a million more STEM professionals than the field will produce. While we’re pumping much-needed investments into ensuring more K-12 students have access to worthwhile math and computer science education, these investments will mean very little if students abandon STEM once they get to college.

If these skills are so critical, why are students failing to complete STEM degrees? And what can we do to reverse the trend?

In recent years, we’ve gained a better understanding of why students drop STEM majors. Many leave the field early -- even during the first courses they take as undergraduates -- because they’re striving to get good grades in comparison to their performance in non-STEM courses. Some students who struggle the most are discouraged to the point of dropping out of college altogether, which is a devastating outcome for students who once hoped to be computer programmers, doctors and engineers.

The other largest driver of STEM attrition is a lack of engagement with the material. There is a mismatch between today’s students, who understand and interact with the world through technology, and the outdated, two-dimensional delivery of information found in too many STEM courses. This is a shame, given that STEM subjects are inherently engaging, interactive and rooted in exploration.

In classrooms around the world, instructors are tapping into the potential of new technologies to address this learning deficit, and interactive learning models are proving most effective at increasing student engagement and boosting student performance. In STEM programs in particular, these new technologies have been grafted to the established curriculum as one way to improve student retention rates, and the results are promising. Studies show improved student performance in these courses -- more A’s and B’s, fewer D’s and F’s -- with particularly significant gains for the lowest-performing students.

Interactive learning tools using web-based technology, such as digital textbooks and homework assignments, present endless possibilities to improve student engagement and achievement. And we’re not talking about digital copies of static text but rather materials that are alive with animation, graphics and instant-feedback question sets that emphasize learning through action. Such tools work because they disrupt the classic passive learning model and invite the student to become the doer.

Students taking these courses demonstrate not only improved results but also a greater desire to learn. In fact, most report a preference for interactive learning tools and choose to spend twice as much time with interactive textbooks than traditional textbooks, even though there is less text. Students are staying on track and moving on with a deeper understanding of the content.

When I taught at the University of California, Davis, many of my colleagues faced the same issue: traditional textbooks and teaching resources are simply not as effective as we need them to be, leaving even the most talented instructors equipped with inadequate tools. Embracing web-based resources allows us to show movement, cause and effect, and coding outcomes much better than a PowerPoint, chalkboard or old-fashioned textbook ever could. And without the costs of printing and physical distribution, web-based interactive tools address yet another barrier to student retention -- the burden of soaring textbook prices -- head-on.

This is a pivotal moment in developing the STEM work force. We are witnessing a generation of students with inherent talent and capacity give up before they’ve even begun. If we don’t focus our efforts on supporting greater numbers of students to succeed in STEM degrees, we may find ourselves navigating a STEM shortage more stark than the gap we see today. Fortunately, instructors are keenly aware of the challenge and are cultivating the necessary ingenuity to steer this generation back to STEM and to success.

Smita Bakshi is the co-founder and CEO of zyBooks digital interactive textbooks and a former electrical and computer engineering professor at the University of California, Davis.

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How colleges can increase diversity in the STEM fields (essay)

The STEM Fields

When the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case Fisher vs. the University of Texas in July, university admissions officers cheered the affirmation of including race and ethnicity as admissions criteria when narrowly tailored to the institution’s mission. Despite the positive decision for affirmative action, however, university leaders are facing another challenge: making sure they have the right diversity practices in place to support the students they admit. Colleges and universities still have plenty of work to do to encourage students to pursue high-needs fields, like STEM and the biomedical sciences, where diversity is urgently needed.

In addition, universities continue to struggle with faculty diversity, which studies have shown is important not just for excellence in teaching and research but also for the overall campus climate. All the more reason, then, for us to redouble our efforts in researching and sharing effective practices for improving campus diversity -- and identifying ineffective practices that we should stop.

We’ve got a great base to start from. Take the many initiatives designed to ensure the success of underrepresented students -- programs designed precisely to ensure that we don’t lose them on their way to graduate school and the biomedical research work force. These efforts develop student talent along the educational and career continuum in biomedical and STEM fields, and ensure student persistence and success. Most important, some of these programs have developed successful models and gathered evaluative research to understand their success.

For example, the Meyerhoff Scholars Program at the University of Maryland Baltimore County has been widely recognized for its successful development of many underrepresented students in the sciences. An evaluation of the program found that the key levers of success were financial support, identity formation as a member of the community of Meyerhoff Scholars, summer research activities and professional network development.

Another example is the Fisk-Vanderbilt Master’s-to-Ph.D. Bridge Program, which aims to address the barriers facing underrepresented students in matriculating to doctoral programs. The program has produced a number of high-profile graduates, including Fabienne Bastien, the first African-American woman to be published in Nature and the first African-American recipient of the NASA Hubble Fellowship. Half of the program’s Ph.D. graduates are female, and 83 percent are minority-community individuals.

What would yet more research on these and other programs tell us about how to support the success of all students? We need more empirical evidence to close gaps in the existing research. We also need to bring exemplary practices to scale more quickly at many more institutions. For example, based on gaps in existing research we need to:

  • Identify effective interventions that universities can implement to reduce stereotype threat, a phenomenon that occurs when members of a disadvantaged group perform poorly when made aware of negative stereotypes about their group;
  • Learn more about how underrepresented students in STEM are accessing high-impact practices, such as internships and undergraduate research, and develop strategies for increasing participation; and
  • Identify effective teaching and learning methods that will boost underrepresented undergraduate student performance in required gateway courses.

These three areas, ripe for action, also demonstrate the gaps in the evidence. For example, high-impact practices are supported by a robust body of research, but less is known about how well underrepresented students are accessing these experiences. This is because most high-impact practices occur beyond the classroom, and it is difficult to track students’ participation and tie their experiences to academic outcomes.

In other cases, different interventions have been tested at the institutional level but have not been evaluated across institutions or in different contexts, such as adapting undergraduate interventions for graduate students. It’s a complex problem, and the research needs to get at that complexity.

Working together, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, its Coalition of Urban-Serving Universities, and the Association of American Medical Colleges have gathered the existing evidence in a recent report that also identifies what’s missing and where we need to go next.

To address these gaps in research, we will need more partners in government, industry, philanthropy and academe to take action -- testing the available models, researching new options, reporting on their results and revising approaches based on the evidence in hand.

Improving evidence for pilot interventions will help leaders build a case for adoption of those shown to be effective at many institutions. Learning more about potential barriers to access will help university leaders improve pathways into these experiences and track student outcomes more effectively.

And at a more basic level, probing more deeply into what works and what doesn’t in our efforts to support diversity will help us with a much more fundamental problem: we’ll get a clearer picture of the “systemic unfairness” that our blind spots prevent us from seeing, as Lisa Burrell pointed out in her Harvard Business Review article “We Just Can’t Handle Diversity.” More precise research will help us avoid such phenomena as hindsight bias, which, as Burrell describes, “causes us to believe that random events are predictable and to manufacture explanations for the inevitability of our achievements.”

In its decision in the Fisher case, the Supreme Court justices called on universities to “engage in constant deliberation and continued reflection” about how diversity is achieved. We go one step farther: higher education institutions and their partners need to research as well as reflect, demonstrate as well as deliberate and put a fine point on existing findings to close the gaps in the research. Only then can we counter the challenges to our efforts to diversify the biomedical research work force and ensure that we’re doing everything we can to support the success of all students.

Jennifer C. Danek is the senior director for Urban Universities for HEALTH, a collaborative effort of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities/Coalition of Urban Serving Universities and the Association of American Medical Colleges. Marc Nivet is the former chief diversity officer for the Association of American Medical Colleges.

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Science journal withdraws paper that suggested evidence some people are psychic

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Journal withdraws paper that argued -- based on flimsy evidence, critics said -- that some people are clairvoyant.

Study examines role of family ties in helping scientists advance

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Study compares the role of family ties in various countries.

How to help more postdocs find careers in STEM fields (essay)

Karen Kashmanian Oates explores why STEM postdocs struggle to land their first faculty position and how others in academe can help.

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Netherlands starts major campaign against research misconduct

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Every researcher will be questioned. New funds will go toward replication of findings.

Universities need to communicate much more effectively about science (essay)

Many brilliant products of research end up feared and rejected by the mainstream society. Technologies such as vaccinations, genetics in agriculture or animal models in medicine can save lives, feed the world and preserve the planet but are distrusted by the majority of nonacademic Americans. How should science regain the trust of consumers? Probably not by doing more research. Instead, scientists are increasingly urged to come out from their academic ivory tower and become better communicators.

But is it fair to expect that scientists will do much of this communicating? Few hard-core researchers are gifted communicators. The minds that discover new drugs or new particles do so with an enormous amount of focus, and it may be counterproductive to demand from them additional, completely different types of creativity.

Instead, the academic leadership and administration of higher education institutions need to embrace science communication as a key pillar of their existence and enter the world of media. Most of society -- political candidates and parties, the corporate sector, nonprofits, even religions -- now engage in aggressive and technologically innovative campaigns in the struggle for influence. But not universities. Instead, scientific and educational institutions still appear reluctant to harness their accumulated intellectual, literary and technological capacity.

Yet there are enormous benefits to be reaped, financial as well as political, if higher education manages to enter mass media. For the national academy, communicating the importance of science is no longer a noble pursuit but a matter of survival. Here I offer for debate a few strategies for how science communication can be functionally institutionalized. Academic leadership should:

Measure and reward the impact of individual faculty members’ outreach. Not every scientist needs to know how to use Twitter. But for those who do choose to distribute their knowledge by means less obtuse than research articles, a system should be in place that objectively assesses their efforts and rewards demonstrable outcomes. Such rewards are commonplace for exceptional research, teaching or extension. That they do not exist for science communication is not by design, but out of inertia. Current tenure metrics still value a cryptic research publication that is never cited more than a blog post that influences thousands. Furthermore, measuring the impact of science communication would be easy and possibly more reliable than standard metrics of teaching, such as student evaluations, as usage analytic methods are readily available.

Revamp communications offices. At most American colleges and universities, offices in charge of science communication ether do not exist or are underfunded and resemble something between a sign shop and a branding police. In the world where what matters most is one’s prominence in the media and on the internet, this is an anachronism. Colleges and universities should take note of successful industries and invest heavily in high-quality science promotion teams. Such offices will always need to keep adapting to societal and technological change, and thus will only retain meaning if staffing is flexible -- and always open to new generations that are ahead of, not behind, new trends.

Some colleges and universities are moving forward and even establishing joint science news outlets (such as Futurity). That is a great start, but the vast majority of science news on the web is still by independent bloggers.

Get serious with local and national media for self-promotion. Many American colleges and universities, and most of the large land-grant institutions, reside in relatively small communities. Local radio stations and TV channels are a logical venue for promoting the importance of science to the community. Yet which research departments truly dedicate strategic effort to collaboration with local news media? In Gainesville, Fla., the crime scene dominates local news, with often little or no mention of the mega-funded and mega-productive research enterprise of the University of Florida that resides here. That is a wasted opportunity for developing a positive image of the institution in the lives and minds of the community, as well as for recruitment of supporters.

It is easy to blame the news media for not supporting science reporters any longer. But media-savvy institutions do not sit and wait to be noticed. They flood the market with interesting stuff, form long-term relationships with the news media and cultivate their audiences.

Reinvent extension. The three traditional pillars of all land-grant universities in America are research, teaching and extension. In a nutshell, extension is a network of university employees who mostly live among farmers and other industry folks and who can translate the fruits of recent research to their constituency. Over the last 100 years, this model helped propel America’s countryside into the most productive agriculture region in the world.

Now, in the 21st century, the vast majority of people live not on farms but in cities, and the extension empire is sometimes struggling to remain relevant. Land-grant universities would benefit themselves and the nation if they turned the extension model toward urban audiences. Those audiences are increasingly moving the American economy and are also more and more prone to be swayed by anti-science ideologies.

The main strength of extension has always lain in the army of motivated agents accustomed to working with lay populations. Thousands of agents are trained in core competencies such as electronic communication, program development and youth education. This organization is as close as it gets to being capable of carrying out the much-needed science communications revolution. All it needs is a new focus on plugged-in city dwellers. Some land grants are already exploring this path: check out the Western Center for Metropolitan Extension and Research.

Establish courses on activism and how to influence the media, combined with STEM course work. Whether academic circles approve of it or not, one sting video can thwart a thousand research papers. By producing alumni with practical skills in activism as well as empirical thinking, colleges and universities would secure their place in this increasingly vital aspect of contemporary history. Most important, by also requiring science-based courses, the educational system can exert a degree of control over the choice of worthy causes. Even a few instances of young people loudly demonstrating for better vaccinations would make a huge difference in the public perception of such matters.

Collectively demand that government agencies increase funding for science communication. Scientists are smart people and would invent amazing ways to communicate their results, but only if it becomes the currency of the trade. It is currently not. The National Science Foundation supports research participation for various student groups, but that is quite different from the need to break into online chat rooms where millions of adult Americans form their opinions. NSF also requires an explicit “broader impacts” statement with every grant application, but there is minimal enforcement and no monitoring of impact. This is not the robust incentive that is needed to communicate with masses.

Some of these suggestions may be uncomfortable for many in academe. Some raise ethical questions about the impartiality of education. That is the point. Anti-science groups and lobbying firms that already dominate the virtual marketplace of ideas are not going to wait for ethical guidance.

Jiri Hulcr is an associate professor in the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida.

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