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The Scientist/Teacher: A Call to Arms

Some thoughts on science education, education, American culture, and what to do about it





(610) 526-5098

July, 1989

Not entirely desireable things have been happening in academic science over the past twenty years or so. Among other indications of trouble is that the character and quality of undergraduate science education has become a matter of national concern. The numbers of students enrolling in science curricula are too low to meet projected needs for the next generations of scientists, and far too low to meet the additionally desireable objectives of increasing female and minority representation in science, and of improving the scientific literacy of the population at large. An increased willingness of both governmental agencies and private foundations to invest in science education is a positive response to these immediate difficulties. At the same time, it needs to be recognized that the health of undergraduate science education is inextricably linked to the health of academic science generally, and that efforts to deal with science education as an isolated problem have at best a limited potential for success. With some understanding of the broader problems, and an appropriate targeting of funds newly becoming available. one might hope for a much greater impact on undergraduate science education, and in turn for significant improvement in the health of academic science generally.

The most serious deficiencies of undergraduate science education are patently obvious to the students who sit in science classrooms and laboratories, and, if less easily acknowledged, are probably equally well known to most academic scientists. New facilities and equipment will help, but the limiting variable for good science teaching is neither facilities nor equipment. It is instead good science teachers, and these, for a complex set of economic and social reasons, are members of a vanishing breed. Good science teaching, of the kind that draws qualified students into scientific careers and makes science an appealing part of general education for all students, has always depended on a population of faculty members who are themselves not only sophisticated and broadly trained scientists, but scientists of the particular sort who are genuinely excited by the enterprise of scientific inquiry and by the gains to themselves of sharing the activity with students. With fewer and fewer such people in the classrooms and laboratories, it is little wonder that students, including the best ones, are avoiding science curricula. There is no prospect of getting them back in significant numbers until something is done to reverse the progressive disappearance of the "scientist/teacher".

In decades past, young scientists were encouraged to invest time and effort to achieve a broad view of scientific activity, and of the place of their own research in it. It was people responding to this encouragement who developed the inclination and background to be good teachers, to write significant textbooks, and, not infrequently, to do the most far-reaching research as well. For such people, it quickly became clear that teaching and scholarly activity could be two sides of a single coin, each enriching the other. It was the scientist/teachers' evident excitement about their own activities, and their inclination to involve students in them, that made science curricula appealing, and encouraged the best students to undertake their own careers in academic science, many of them with the aspiration of becoming effective scientist/teachers themselves. In relatively recent years, this positive feedback cycle has been badly disturbed, and it is now in critical need of repair. Current generations of scientist/teachers are still holding the fort, but the situation is increasingly desperate and the prospects of reinforcements are steadily worsening.

The message currently being given to young scientists, by funding agencies, by academic institutions, and often by their teachers and mentors as well, is not to aspire to breadth and long run wisdom but instead fo aim for short term success. Academic science is no longer offering a mission; it is instead selling a profession, and, like most professions in our culture, what drives the activity is the bottom line, not the potential bottom line vaguely glimplsed off in the future, but this year's bottom line and next year's. Graduate students are being told to concentrate on getting publishable research done quickly, so they can get advantageous postdoctoral fellowships. Postdoctoral fellows are being told the same thing, so they can get desireable jobs, and young faculty members the same thing so they can get grants and tenure. The message being heard by young scientists, and potential young scientists, is no longer to take the time to think, dream, and aspire to broad significance; the message is to do what you need to do to get ahead, and do it as quickly as possible. Among the things which young scientists are being explicitly warned to avoid, as a hindrance to their professional advancement, is teaching. It is hardly surprising that there are fewer and fewer scientist/teachers in our classrooms and laboratories, or that students in general, and the best students in particular, do not find science classrooms and laboratories exciting places to be.

There will inevitably be even fewer scientist/teachers in the years to come, and correspondingly even fewer students, unless a number of things are done in a deliberate and coordinated way. Those of us who recall the ideal of the scientist/teacher, and who have experienced its power, need to reassert its significance for ourselves, for our colleagues, and most particularly for our students. Against the mood of the times, we must be willing to testify and continue to testify to the reality that research and teaching are complementary activities, that what we gain from students invigorates our research and that from our research comes the excitement and insight that makes us better teachers. No less against the mood of the times, we must be willing to insist and continue to insist that our interest in teaching in no way compromises our abilities or potentials as scientists. Very much to the contrary, our potential contributions as scientists are enhanced by our teaching involvement. Perhaps most difficult of all, we need to bear these things in mind in our teaching and in our mentoring. It is our task to encourage breadth and inquiry, not simply to transmit particular bodies of information which others feel students must have. It is our obligation to encourage students to undertake the ambitious task of themselves becoming scientist/teachers, of becoming broad enough and wise enough to deal with the unknown over the long haul, rather than the easier task of becoming information acquirers in the short. None of these things are easy to do in the present environment, but they must be done and there is no one but ourselves to do them. If the ideal of the scientist/teacher is to survive, we must put aside inevitable discouragements and persist in living and encouraging that ideal ourselves.

Virtue is its own reward, and our commitment is ncessary for the larger task. However, neither the needed renewal of the scientist/teacher ideal nor a marked enhancement of the flow of students into science curricula can be achieved by our efforts alone. We need help, of at least two sorts, and it is here than an appropriate targeting of newly available funds becomes critical. It is one thing to believe in the scientist/teacher ideal. It is quite another to find the support needed to maintain a viable research program given the current state of academic science generally. The federal granting agenceis not only look skeptically on those who invest significant time in teaching, but are themselves under pressure to show short terms gains for monies invested. The upshot is that grant review panels favor proposals in active, well-known areas of research where it is reasonably clear that significant time investement will yield substantial publishable product in a short time. In this context, those of us who would prefer to take advantage of the breadth of knowledge we have acquired to identify and slowly mine the unknown frontiers of scientific knowledge are at a definite disadvantage in the competition for a fixed amount of research support. What is needed is a research support program targeted specifically for the scientist/teacher, one in which the competition for research support is based on the likelihood of broadly significant product over the long run rather than immediately relevant product over the short. Such a program would not only greatly ease the task of those of us who continue to aspire to the scientist/teacher ideal but would almost certainly improve the quality of scientific research generally. Of equal importance is that such a program would go a long way toward eliminating factors which militate against able students electing careers in academic science. There is nothing quite so discouraging to such students as to hear from inspiring faculty members that they have themselves been unable to get research support, and that thte students will face the same difficulties unless they rein in their long-run aspirations and learn to replace them with more prosaic objectives.

The other area where newly available funds could have a disproportionate impact is by the provision of encouragement, support, and opportunities for young scientists who would be choice pursue the kind of training appropriate for a scientist/teacher were it more readily available and more publicly endorsed as a worthwhile activity. There are in the pipeline young scientists who would prefer graduate and postdoctoral tarining opportunities where there were greater provisions for acquiring breadth, teaching opportunities among them, and there would be more if, as with the case of research funding, distinctive training fellowships were available specifically for young scientists with this sort of aspiration. There also exist a significant number of institutions, including many smaller ones not normally thought of in connection with post-graduate science education, who could provide appropriate training for scientist/teachers. The resource, particularly at the post-doctoral level, is there to be tapped, and could quickly and effectively increase the numbers of scientist/teachers. A nationally visible post-doctoral program for the scientist/teacher would not only draw existing young scientists into classrooms and laboratories, but provide a clear public statement of the importance of this kind of activity, and hence encourage undergraduates as well to take more seriously the option of such a career.

Just as the problem of science teaching cannot be dealt with independently of the health of the broader enterprise of academic science, the ills of the latter largely reflect an unhealthy preoccupation with immediate return on investment in our culture at large. This will not go away quickly in either context, but it is particularly damaging to an enterprise whose primary reasons for existence are to develop perspectives which will be important to the solutions of problems before they are known to exist, and to renew the populations of people capable of developing those perspectives. That it has been generally accepted that increasing the numbers of scientists is a national need in the short run provides a way to begin more effectively influencing academic science, and the culture at large, in the long run, and to do so from the bottom up. That among those willing to provide funds for improving science educaiton are private foundations, who are generally in a better position than the federal government to invest in long-term objectives, is an additional reason for optimism. The time is ripe for renewed expressions of commitment to the scientist/teacher ideal. The myth of a conflict between teaching and research needs to be destroyed, and for this we need to make renewed efforts to establish our own careers as viable counterexamples. At the same time, we need collectively to speak as clearly and loudly as possible about the ideal itself, and the role it must necessarily play for there to be any serious prospect of returning significant numbers of students to science laboratories and classrooms. Those concerned with science education need to hear the real problems, and the real possibilities of solutions. They need to know that there are people willing and able to deal with the problems, and they need ot know what we need if we are to do so effectively.

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