Monday, January 4, 2010

Education for the future and the future of education

I'm preparing for what ay be the biggest teaching challenge of my hitherto untenured professorial career: Biology 1B, or Intro Bio (the diversity and evolution edition), the large lower division undergraduate course which (for pre-meds and other non-bio-majors) may be the only time that many of the students encounter the diversity of life on this planet and the mechanism that produced that diversity - Evolution. Teaching evolution in the San Joaquin Valley of California is a challenge, as I have noted before, but I've only done so at the other end of our majors' core sequence - the upper division Evolution class. Students taking that class have, by that time, generally come to terms with evolution, or at least become good at hiding their trouble with it (and don't ask me which I prefer!). I will now experience what its like to teach the E-subject at the lower division level, especially for many students who won't be taking the course to get a biology degree. Should be fun, eh?

Should I tone it down, perhaps even skirt around the E-word as some in this region suggest, to avoid creating conflicts for some students that may impair their learning? Or should I hammer it in, so that those who object to it are "weeded out" to alternative career choices - and perhaps turned more hostile towards evolution? How about, instead, I try to really light a fire of curiosity in their minds so that more of them actually want to learn evolutionary biology in all its glory? Ah... that last is the ideal I'd like to shoot for, but am also most apprehensive about being able to pull off without falling into the second category: appearing to be hammering it in too strongly! But surely, I have to try to excite them about evolution, don't I? For these students are the future pillars of this state and country, so isn't it my duty as a science professor to make sure they get a proper understanding of and appreciation for science, even if - especially if - it pushes them outside their cultural comfort zones and forces them to acknowledge and push beyond the boundaries of their ignorance? More selfishly - some of these kids will become doctors who may treat me in my old age, while others will sit on school boards that determine what my daughters can learn - or not - in their classroom! How can I forgo my one chance of making sure they have the right scientific foundation?

These would be questions keeping me up even ordinarily, but this year they hold a sharper edge, owing to our current circumstances: Caifornia's higher education system is in crisis along with the state's economy, putting a college degree farther out of reach for many; I teach in the California State University system, which is the worst affected among the triumvirate leading the state's higher education; our campus serves one of the poorest regions in the state (perhaps the country) with a high proportion of "minority" students; and I'm told that bad economic times can make people more cautious and conservative - even fundamentalist if you ask at least one evolutionary biologist who recently argued that the ecologically sound way to address the problem of terrorism is to increase existential security for people (I don't buy that - but will defer that argument to another post to avoid a lengthy detour here). Giving students a sound foundation in science - including evolution - therefore becomes more important than ever if we are to collectively pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

This Sunday's Los Angeles Times had a couple of thought-provoking articles that are pertinent to this discussion and well worth your while, especially if you live in California. First, Professor William Tierney, director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California, calls for a brand new master plan for higher education in California since the old master plan (which put the triad of UC-CSU-Community Colleges in charge of public higher education) is outdated and probably past its use-by date. Many points worth thinking about in the article, but one that particularly resonates with me right now is this:

* High school and higher education must be linked to ensure that when students graduate from high school, they are prepared for college.

Tens of millions of dollars are spent each year bringing more than 50% of Cal State students up to speed in math and English, with often negligible results. That kind of waste could be significantly reduced if high schools and colleges agree on what entering freshmen should know and then work together to bring it about. That means, at a minimum, requiring four years of English and three years of math, including algebra.

High schoolers also should be tested to prove they can do college-level work -- not simply to meet high school requirements. If they can't, corrective steps should be taken in high school to overcome their deficiencies. This demands collaborative relationships between high schools and colleges that don't exist now.

This seems like such a no-brainer to me that I'm surprised its been overlooked thus far. So much of what we find ourselves doing in university these days is remedial education that its not funny! My life would be so much easier if the K-12 system didn't just kick the problem upstairs and "graduate" students lacking in basic skills, especially in critical thinking and other fundamentals of science - not just math and English! How much farther would I be able to take these kids if they only came better prepared... oh I can dream!

Second, Dr. Irving Epstein, HHMI Professor of Chemistry at Brandeis University raises broader questions about the science of science education:

At most universities, freshman chemistry, a class I've taught for nearly 40 years, is the first course students take on the road to a career in the health professions or the biological or physical sciences. It's a tough course, and for many students it's the obstacle that keeps them from majoring in science. This is particularly true for minority students.

My intro bio course is another such obstacle, made acute by the "majority minority" nature of our student body.

In 2005, more than two-thirds of the American scientific workforce was composed of white males. But by 2050, white males will make up less than one-fourth of the population. If the pipeline fails to produce qualified nonwhite scientists, we will, in effect, be competing against the rest of the world with one hand tied behind our backs.

We've been able to survive for the last several decades in large measure because of the "brain drain" -- the fact that the most able students from other countries, particularly China and India, have come here to study science at our best universities and, in many cases, have stayed to become key players in our scientific endeavors.

At many top schools, including my own, international students constitute from 30% to 70% of the doctoral candidates in math, physics and chemistry.

This resonates too, for I am an exemplar of this very "brain drain": a non-white immigrant from India who came to this country for graduate school because I was starving for evolutionary biology back in India!

The situation might be tolerable, if embarrassing, were it not for recent changes in world economies and attitudes toward science and education. As a result of dramatically increased investment by other countries in science, the brain drain is not just slowing, it appears to be changing direction.

International students and post-docs are returning to their home countries in much greater numbers after reaping the benefits of an American education, and many who have worked for years at U.S. companies and universities are being lured home by offers of new labs, easy access to research funding and the comforts of their native culture.

And this last part hits even closer to home, as I too experience greater pressure these days to return home to new institutions of higher learning in India. Many colleagues there (and my own spouse here) wonder (aloud) why I have chosen to remain at an institution such as this one where I teach more classes each semester than they have to during a whole year (or two), where research is a "required hobby" that I have to constantly scrape up time for, and where the student body is such a problematic one. How much longer can I stave off these questions and fight the tide of the reverse brain drain? Interesting to be pondering this even as my tenure file makes its way up my university's hierarchy this year, giving me that shot at existential security: what price such personal existential security against an increasingly insecure future? I guess the answer for me will depend on how California handles this crisis (no good omens thus far) - but in the meantime, I still have to address this challenge: 

We need to ensure that American science draws on all of our population, not just selected, and shrinking, segments of it. But how?

Read the rest of Epstein's article, and Abel Pharmboy's commentary on the same at ScienceBlogs for some potential answers. And if you have a better solution, please do share, won't you? Meanwhile, I better get back to writing that syllabus, and preparing my talk for the SICB meeting which just got underway tonight!

Posted via email from a leaf warbler's gleanings

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