Conference keynote speakers discussed topics that included STEM education, the growing trend of computer-based higher education, the American Association of Universities’ plans to improve science instruction, and the role of serendipity in research.
Keynote speakers included:
Celeste Rohlfing, deputy assistant director for the Directorate of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the National Science Foundation (NSF), told attendees the U.S. ranks near the bottom of developed countries in producing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) graduates.
Rohlfing noted that half of American college students starting their studies in the sciences leave these fields prior to graduation. In addition, the percentage of women and minorities earning degrees in the physical sciences is far from proportionate to their representation in the U.S. population, she said.
“These are troubling data because the nation looks to scientific innovation to promote economic growth, improve health, ensure security and maintain a sustainable standard of living,” Rohlfing said.
Just as scientific questions have evolved beyond discrete disciplines to the intersections between disciplines, the integration of scholarly research from education and social sciences is essential to improve the classroom and laboratory experiences in the physical sciences, she said. View Presentation (PDF, 1MB)
Tobin Smith, American Association of Universities (AAU) vice president for policy, described for Scholars his organization’s current five-year initiative aimed at improving undergraduate STEM instruction in AAU member schools. The AAU’s effort is particularly focused on the first two years of college, Smith said. The AAU is composed of 59 leading U.S. and two Canadian research universities devoted to maintaining a strong system of academic research and education.
“The overarching mission of the AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative is to help influence change in the culture of STEM departments at major research universities. The goal is to institute evidence-based, student-centered, active, sustainable pedagogy in their classes, particularly at the freshman and sophomore levels,” Smith noted.
Smith and Cottrell Scholars participated in a facilitated discussion on how the AAU initiative might be used to help advance conference attendee’s interests in promoting systemic and long-lasting the cultural changes on their own university campuses.
Michael Schatz, a professor in the School of Physics at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told the Scholars that 2012 may prove to be a watershed year for science education due to the advent of two distinct trends:
First, MOOCs (Massively Online Open Courses) have begun to capture the attention of the higher education community, he observed. “MOOCs replace traditional course offerings for enrolled university students with online-based content, assessment and interaction offered freely to anyone, thereby attracting 100,000 or more participants per course,” Schatz said. He noted that elite universities have spun off MOOC providers (e.g., edX, Coursera, Udacity), which aspire to become “survivors in a future where only a handful of institutions dominate the delivery of higher education content worldwide.”
Second, Schatz pointed out that the development of national standards for K-12 science education is currently in progress, including input from 26 states and numerous discipline-specific societies. He said the blueprint for standards development is the 2012 National Research Council report, A Framework for K-12 Science Education. He noted the report describes a fundamental reevaluation of science education that is useful for rethinking undergraduate science. View Presentation (PDF, 780KB)
Luis Echegoyen, the Robert A. Welch Professor of Chemistry at the University of Texas, El Paso, observed that science progress and serendipity are good partners, but, he added, “Only when the well-trained eye of the scientist is present and able to take advantage of serendipitous occurrences.”
As a prime example of this principle, he cited the serendipitous 1985 beginnings of the development of a new carbon allotrope beyond graphite and diamond -- the buckminsterfullerenes. Echegoyen’s recounting of the fullerene story highlighted just how “serendipitous serendipity really is,” with several major researchers missing the hints of the new allotrope their work had revealed. He cautioned attending Scholars to pay attention to the anomalies in their data as long as possible before giving up and moving on to more predictable results.
“The greatest impact of the conference stemmed not from any one proposal or insight but from the shared sense of commitment and renewed determination,” observed RCSA President & CEO James M. Gentile. “These leading scholar-educators want to reform undergraduate science education but need to be reinforced in that effort. They, and others who share their commitment to integrating teaching and research, may well be the most important ingredient to maintaining American preeminence in scientific and technological innovation in the 21st century.”
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