President's Pages in Princeton Alumni Weekly
‘Rising Above the Gathering Storm’ Through Science and Engineering Education
January 24, 2007
Although Americans dominated last year’s Nobel Prizes, taking home awards in physics, chemistry, medicine, and economics, our scientific and technological leadership—and the prosperity that flows from it—should not be taken for granted. This point was brought home in a powerful way this past year by Norman Augustine ’57 *59, the former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin. He chaired a National Research Council committee that issued a highly influential report called “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future.” After studying international trends in science and engineering, the authors concluded that “This nation must prepare with great urgency to preserve its strategic and economic security. Because other nations have, and probably will continue to have, the competitive advantage of a low wage structure, the United States must compete by optimizing its knowledge-based resources, particularly in science and technology.”
Among the most worrisome trends that the committee identified was the state of U.S. science, mathematics, and engineering education. In a nationwide science test administered by the U.S. Department of Education in 2005, for example, only 54 percent of high school seniors performed at or above a basic level. This lack of preparation does not compare well to student performance in other industrialized countries. When the scientific and mathematical knowledge of American twelfth-graders was recently compared with that of students in 20 other countries, only two, Cyprus and South Africa, had average scores significantly lower than the United States. The problem begins in high school, where two-thirds of physics teachers in the U.S. did not major in the subject, and 61 percent of chemistry teachers and 45 percent of biology teachers were not prepared in those fields. The critical lack of technically trained K-12 teachers creates what in biochemistry we call a “futile cycle”—unprepared teachers fail to inspire students, who pursue other studies but return to public schools to teach science.
With such weak grounding in high school, it should come as no surprise that the number of undergraduates—pre-med students aside—who are choosing to major in the sciences and engineering is in decline at precisely the moment when our world is being transformed by advances in these fields. In 1970-1971, 2.5 percent of American bachelor’s degrees were awarded in the physical sciences; 33 years later, this anemic figure had fallen to 1.3 percent. At Princeton we are doing considerably better than the national average, with 5 percent of the Class of 2006 having concentrated in physics, astrophysics, chemistry, or geosciences. On the other hand, we know that the majority of freshmen who arrive with the intention of becoming scientists eventually leave the physical sciences, primarily for the social sciences.
Improving our nation’s science and technology education infrastructure will require strong corrective measures throughout the system and within American society at large. At Princeton we have been experimenting with how we teach the sciences and engineering, with a goal of retaining a greater percentage of freshmen and sophomores in those fields. The first of these initiatives, spearheaded by Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics Director and Professor of Molecular Biology David Botstein and Professor of Physics William Bialek, was introduced in the fall of 2004 after senior faculty from these departments, as well as chemistry and computer science, met each week for a year to identify the fundamental aspects of their own curricula, pinpoint commonalities, and forge “An Integrated, Quantitative Introduction to the Natural Sciences.” Spanning a student’s freshman and sophomore years, this program is designed to overcome what Professors Botstein and Bialek have identified as “a deep bifurcation in culture and quantitative competence among the scientific disciplines.” On the one hand, physics students are taught that their discipline centers on the search for a concise mathematical description of the world, to be tested by detailed quantitative experiments, but in practice, introductory courses focus on a limited set of examples that hardly do justice to the range of phenomena studied in our Department of Physics and certainly do not extend to the complexities of the living world. On the other hand, modern biology students are immersed in this complexity and in the startlingly rapid growth of our factual knowledge about the molecular basis of life, but they are given none of the mathematical tools they need to come to grips with the massive volumes of data emerging in new experiments, nor are they exposed to successful examples of mathematical theorizing about the natural world. This disjunction ensures that students in the life and physical sciences develop different languages, limiting the range of problems that each can undertake without assistance and impeding joint endeavors. The undergraduate curriculum developed by the institute uses the unifying medium of mathematics to demonstrate, theoretically and experimentally, that ostensibly disparate phenomena are, in fact, related, and that biology, chemistry, and physics, in partnership with computer science, can help each other to unlock the scientific secrets of our universe.
For its part, the Center for Innovation in Engineering Education, headed by Professor Sharad Malik, has developed a pioneering freshman curriculum informally known as EMP, which was launched in the fall of 2005 to provide would-be engineers with an integrated introduction to engineering, mathematics, and physics. Not only does this program demonstrate the relevance of mathematics to physics by teaching these subjects concurrently, it also translates abstract theory into practice through a semester-long rocket lab, in which students construct and launch a water-propelled rocket whose instruments generate real-time data that can be compared against predictions based on the laws of mechanics. EMP’s engineering component uses lectures, guest lectures, and hands-on projects to provide a broad introduction to the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s six departments and the kind of questions on which they focus. Modules on energy conversion and its environmental impact, robotic remote sensing, and wireless image and video transmission give freshmen a far stronger basis on which to choose their field of concentration than they might otherwise have had, as well as demonstrating just how big an impact engineering has on our society.
By integrating the curricular path that leads to the sciences and engineering we are, hopefully, creating a wider gateway to these disciplines, and by ensuring that our students have ample opportunity to apply their knowledge sooner rather than later, we are giving them a very important foretaste of the rewards that lie before them if they are willing to persevere. In the process, we are helping to ensure that our nation will always stand in the forefront of scientific and technological progress.