Science Classes Are "An Opportunity for Seduction," AAAS Forum Hears
Norine Noonan, the dean of the school of science and mathematics at the College of Charleston, tells the story of a physicist at the University of Alabama who once bragged that he had given an F in a physics course to a student who eventually was to become governor of the state.
For Noonan, a AAAS board member, and for others who see the need to nurture a new generation of scientists and engineers in the United States, such anecdotes give little cause for laughter. The challenge of reaching those who turn away from science early, even though they may excel in other fields, is long-standing and promises to grow even more acute, according to Noonan and others who spoke on the science and technology workforce at a 21 April session of the 30th annual AAAS Forum on Science and Technology Policy in Washington, D.C.
"Those of us in academia tend still to focus on what one author called 'mining the gems,'" Noonan said. Faculty spend "a great deal of time figuring out how to limit our teaching assignments to upper-level undergraduate courses or advising and mentoring students in research," she said. "Many faculty members don't like teaching introductory-level courses, particularly those for non-majors. What happens to those non-majors? They grow up to be governors, and members of Congress, and state senators and representatives and business people who serve on school boards."
Noonan argued that schools must do much more to reach out to non-majors, both to produce a more scientifically literate populace and to lure some of them into careers in science and engineering. Educators must make introductory courses as relevant and sought after as possible, Noonan said, recalling that George Wald, a biologist and Nobel laureate, continued to teach introductory biology classes at Harvard University throughout his career.
Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at the AAAS, called introductory courses for non-majors "an opportunity for seduction," where students can learn the rubric of science, where the value of evidence is stressed and "skepticism is a prime part of the way you view the world."
The United States has remained at the forefront of science and technology because of its flexible use of both domestic and foreign sources of talent and the sheer size of the American economy, said Anthony P. Carnevale, a senior fellow at the National Center on Education and the Economy in Washington. But as baby boomers retire and other nations continue to become more competitive, he said, the U.S. will need to replenish its science and technology workforce with more homegrown talent.
Several recent studies have raised a common warning: The U.S. faces a critical challenge in maintaining its pre-eminent science and engineering workforce.
The nation is not keeping pace with the growth in such measures as number of engineers produced per 10,000 of population, even as the market for jobs requiring science and engineering skills grows 5 per cent annually compared to a 1 per cent growth rate for the rest of the domestic labor market. Since 1975, the United States has fallen from third to 17th compared to other countries in the proportion of those between 18 and 24 who earn science and engineering degrees.
William O. Berry, acting deputy under secretary of Defense for laboratories and basic science, told the forum that the Defense Department faces an attrition of about 13,000 people in science, math, engineering and technology positions over the next decade. The number of U.S citizens pursuing defense-related S&T skills is small and declining, he said.
To help meet such challenges, "higher education must develop an emerging U.S. talent pool that looks very different from decades past," said Daryl Chubin, director of the AAAS Center for Advancing Science and Engineering Capacity. That includes more attention to women, under-represented minorities and non-traditional students who do not pursue a four-year college program immediately out of high school, he said.
Some of those non-traditional students are highly motivated, experts say. Noonan said many regular undergraduate students she encounters "simply are not prepared to devote the time and energy to academics that success requires." There is "a dearth of real ambition," she said, and that can be seen even in science and technical fields where students typically are more motivated.
Good teaching makes a difference, experts agree, and it must reach students at the early grades as well as high school. Joan Robinson-Berry, director of external affiliations for the Boeing Company, said her company has made a decision to focus its philanthropic efforts on improving the effectiveness of teachers in kindergarten through grade 12 classrooms.
The Department of Defense has a variety of outreach efforts to encourage and support interest in science and engineering, William Berry said. "We have a lot of programs to get kids interested here and there," he said.
But the department is asking Congress to fund a new National Defense Education Act aimed at putting students on a more defined path toward science and technical degrees, including more availability of research support and equipment, summer internships and the option for the department to employ students during their course of study.
Noonan ended on an optimistic note: She teaches an introductory biology course for non-majors. She recently encountered one of her former students in a cafeteria and asked her whether she was going to take the next course in the sequence for non-majors. Noonan was pleasantly surprised to find that the student, after taking her course, had decided to become a biology major.
22 April 2005