The Future of Science Education in the Liberal Arts College
President Shirley M. Tilghman
January 5, 2010
Presented at Presidents Institute, Council of Independent Colleges
Hal Hartley has asked me to speak about the future of science education within the context of a liberal arts institution, and I would like to do so from two equally important vantage points: the education of future scientists and the education of scientifically literate citizens. Both are critical missions for liberal arts colleges or universities, but I will argue that the ways to accomplish these dual missions are fundamentally different.
Let me begin with a little historical perspective to highlight why our mission of educating a creative scientific workforce is so important. A strong case can be made that at least half the growth in America's gross domestic product in the past 50 years has been due to advances in the sciences and engineering. Entirely new industries such as biotech, telecommunications, and e-commerce grew out of scientific and engineering invention, and the vast majority of those advances were begun and nurtured in research universities. Since the Truman administration's decision to couple significant federal investments in fundamental research with the education of scientists, American scientific progress has depended upon the young, whose energy, curiosity, and adaptability have made it the envy of the world. Tempting though it is to rest on our 20th-century laurels, however, we need to remember, as the financial services industry likes to say, that "past performance is no guarantee of future results." I believe that they made their point abundantly clear last year.
I wish I could stand here and simply say, "Well done! Carry on!" but in fact there are storm clouds on the horizon. This is the message of one of my personal heroes — the former head of the Lockheed Martin Corporation and chair of the National Academies' Committee on Prospering in the Global Economy of the 21st Century, Norm Augustine, Princeton Class of 1957. In his committee's seminal report, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future," he issued a wakeup call to anyone who believes that our prowess in the sciences and engineering is an immutable fact of life. Indeed, for him and many other thoughtful observers of our scientific and technological trajectory — and here I quote from his report's conclusion — "without a renewed effort to bolster the foundations of our competitiveness, it is possible that we could lose our privileged position over the coming decades." As physical impediments to the rapid transfer of products, services, and ideas have disappeared and as countries such as China and India have dramatically increased their intellectual and industrial capital in science, it has become imperative that the United States renew its commitment to fundamental research and technological innovation.
Augustine and his colleagues address this danger by making a number of forceful recommendations — from larger and more targeted investments in basic research to greater incentives for private sector research and development — but none is more important, in my view, than their call for a transformation in the teaching of science and mathematics in our nation's public schools and a new commitment to attracting the "best and brightest" to the sciences and engineering in college and beyond. Why? Because all is not well in the world of American science education, and the problem begins — though it certainly does not end — in the schoolroom. As Augustine bluntly told Congressional leaders last year, "America is widely acknowledged as having one of the worst K-12 education systems in the world, yet spends more on it per student than all but two other nations. The more our children are exposed to our educational system, the more poorly they perform on international tests." Let me repeat that last sentence:
This is painfully true of science and mathematics, where the most recent results from the Program for International Student Assessment placed American 15-year-olds in 23rd and 32nd place respectively among their peers from 57 international jurisdictions, well behind such countries as Canada, Australia, Korea, and Germany. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, which focuses exclusively on the United States, paints an equally dismal picture. When students in grades four, eight, and twelve were tested in 2005 on their command of science, only fourth graders achieved a higher average score than their predecessors had in 1996, while high school seniors performed less well, with only 18 percent scoring at or above a "proficient" level. When more than half of American twelfth graders are unable to correctly draw a rough sketch of the sun and the four inner planets in relation to each other, it does not take a rocket scientist to know that we have a national problem on our hands.
Nor should it come as any great surprise that this anemic showing is having repercussions further along the educational pipeline. Students who have limped through science and mathematics with many a weary groan have little incentive to major in these subjects when they enter college, and many will even shy away from courses geared to the non-scientist. At precisely the time when our lives are being transformed by exponential strides in science and technology, the annual survey of the American freshman conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute suggests that with the notable exception of the life sciences, fewer young men and women are embracing the sciences and engineering today than in the past. In its report on 40-year trends, the institute documents the changing "plans, goals, and expectations" of freshmen between 1966 and 2006, and the data are dispiriting. In 1966, 8.6 percent of respondents foresaw themselves as engineers. Forty years later, 6.3 percent did. In 1966, 4.1 percent of respondents predicted that they would pursue careers as research scientists. Forty years later, this percentage had fallen to a paltry 1.8 percent. Turning to projected majors, the report reveals that freshmen have abandoned mathematics and statistics in droves and that the physical sciences and engineering have also suffered significant attrition. Indeed, the actual undergraduate enrollment in engineering was less in 2005 than it was in 1985, notwithstanding the overall growth in the size of America's college population.
This welter of statistics indicates that the sciences and engineering, which inspired my generation — the post-Sputnik generation — to reach for the stars, are losing their attraction for many young Americans. And this is a shame, not only because it weakens a major driver of progress in the United States and a significant source of American influence abroad, but also because there have never been so many fascinating questions to explore and so many marvelous things to build. What, then, can we do to prevail on young Americans to embrace the wonders of science and engineering? Clearly, the focal point of any effort must be in primary and secondary education, where inadequate funding, an uninspiring curriculum, and undertrained teachers exact a heavy toll. Just one statistic makes this point — 67 percent of physics teachers in the nation's public high schools do not have an undergraduate degree in physics. If there is one thing you learn as a teacher, it is that if you don't understand and appreciate the subject you are teaching, there is no chance your students will. On the other hand, we in higher education cannot afford to wring our hands, decry the sorry state of science education in our nation's public schools, and wait for matters to improve. Despite the fact that students are arriving on our campuses with less rigorous preparation for, and less attraction to, the sciences, we can make a difference simply by the way we teach science. I'd like to describe three important strategies to improve upon science education that we are pursuing at Princeton.
The first is to understand what motivates students to become scientists. In my own case, it began with a childhood fascination with math and a love of puzzles, but I truly started down the path to a career in science when it dawned on me that scientists get to solve puzzles that have the potential to change the world — in my case, I wanted to understand how an embryo develops from a single cell to a fully formed organism. Many of my generation who were inspired by Sputnik were responding to the dual challenge of exploring the last frontier — space — while helping to keep America strong. This leads me to the conclusion that we must introduce students to the big questions that scientists are currently trying to solve early in their education. Too often the operating metaphor for science education is a pyramid. At the bottom is a group of foundational facts — often discovered hundreds of years ago — that must be learned by heart — Mendel's laws of inheritance; Newton's laws of gravity. Is there anyone in the audience who was inspired by Mendel's peas or Newton's apple? These facts are often taught as a laundry list and from a historical perspective, without much effort to explain their relevance to modern problems. Only after you have successfully conquered those facts are you allowed to move up the pyramid to the next set of slightly more complex facts, and if you have the persistence of Sisyphus and the patience of Job, you will finally reach the summit and be shown the reasons why you have been learning those facts — that they are the tools you need to solve exciting problems. I think we need to invert that pyramid and begin with the big ideas. And then we need to continually connect the facts and theories and hypotheses and theorems we teach to solving the questions behind the big ideas.
I tried this approach with a group of 11 Princeton freshmen in a seminar called "The Role of Asymmetry in Development." At the time I taught this course — in 1992 — Princeton had a Freshman Seminar program in which a senior member of the faculty explored for a semester a deep question, often arising from his or her current research interest. To this day it is considered one of the most memorable teaching experiences by students and faculty alike, but no one had ever tried to teach a Freshman Seminar in the scientific disciplines. The reason? The pyramid! Dogma held that you could not possibly engage a group of freshmen with complex scientific ideas because they were standing at the bottom of the pyramid and were completely unprepared to appreciate what lay at the pinnacle. I was not persuaded, and I began the semester by posing one of the most fundamental questions in developmental biology: how can you create asymmetry in a fertilized egg or a stem cell so that after a single cell division you have two daughter cells that are different from one another? Without the generation of asymmetry, no differentiation and hence no development can occur. The assignment I gave to the students for the first three weeks was to think about ways in which asymmetry might be introduced into a biological system, and they were forbidden to consult any textbooks or sources. I wanted them to think originally about the problem. For three weeks we discussed their ideas — weighing the pros and cons of each. Once they had learned that they could invent hypotheses themselves, we spent the rest of the semester reading papers from the professional literature in which their ideas had been tested. Yes, we had to begin each class with a vocabulary lesson because of the propensity of scientists to use arcane language when simple words would do, but once armed with the dictionary, the students were able to understand the concepts and, most importantly, the ways in which scientists go about designing experiments to test big ideas — their ideas. From that I learned that it is possible to invert the pyramid.
The second approach that we are exploring at Princeton is breaking down the artificial barriers that separate one scientific discipline from another. Those barriers have existed on our campuses for centuries, but they are increasingly irrelevant to the way 21st-century science and engineering are conducted. The most exciting problems that scientists and engineers face today often do not neatly fit into one of the foundational sciences but, rather, lie at the interstices of multiple fields. Today's neuroscientists require familiarity with physics and computer science as much as with biology and psychology. Successful environmental remediation will need hydrologists, civil engineers, geoscientists, and chemists to work alongside ecologists. It is critical that we prepare our students for this scientific future. Five years ago, a professor of molecular biology at Princeton, David Botstein, created a new curriculum for freshmen and sophomores, called the Integrated Science Curriculum. He began by asking a group of senior faculty from chemistry, physics, biology, and computer science to meet for a year and develop a list of the most important ideas in their fields, and the scientific principles that underpin them. They discovered — to their surprise — that they had far more in common than they had thought. Using this list, they created a two-year course, co-taught by faculty from the participating disciplines, that would prepare students to concentrate in any one of those disciplines as upperclassmen. As you can imagine, this took some doing, as faculty are loath to cede control of preparation for the major to colleagues outside their own department. Nevertheless, it has worked, and the majority of the students who have passed through this curriculum have not only gone off to the best graduate programs in the country at much higher rates than we have seen before, but those programs are also begging us to send them more students, as they are ready for the interdisciplinary world ahead.
The third approach we are taking at Princeton is not new, but I am convinced it is critical for producing future scientists, and that is providing students with the opportunity to actually be scientists. There have been many studies over the years that established a positive correlation between an early research experience and the likelihood of persisting with a career in science. This is hardly surprising, since one of the greatest motivators for a scientist is the thrill of discovery — at the risk of sounding like Bob Costas. At Princeton we require every student to conduct research in their senior year and write a substantial thesis. But in truth, the earlier undergraduates enter our research labs, the greater the likelihood that they will have a transformative experience. I should add, of course, that for some of our students, the senior thesis is revelatory in a different way — they discover that they are not meant for a life in science, and that is a valuable lesson as well.
This brings me to you, the leaders of our nation's independent colleges, and the role that liberal arts institutions can play in rejuvenating science education and avoiding the "gathering storm" on the horizon. For indeed, your institutions have an impressive track record when it comes to educating scientists and engineers. In the words of chemist and Nobel laureate Tom Cech, a product of Grinnell College, "liberal arts colleges as a group produce about twice as many eventual science Ph.D.'s per graduate as do baccalaureate institutions in general, and the top colleges vie with the nation's very best research universities in their efficiency of production of science Ph.D.'s. On a more subjective note, when highly successful scientists compare their liberal arts college education to what they likely would have received at a large research university, most rate their college experience as a substantial advantage to their career." In an article entitled "Science at Liberal Arts Colleges: A Better Education?" — which should be required reading for graduate school admission committees — Cech explores the basis for this phenomenon. Of the 25 colleges and universities that produce the largest fraction of undergraduates who end up earning doctorates in the sciences and engineering, he found that no fewer than 12 were liberal arts colleges and that four — Swarthmore, Carleton, Harvey Mudd, and Reed — were surpassed only by the very focused powerhouses of Caltech and M.I.T.
I have crunched some numbers of my own in preparation for this talk, and the results confirm that our nation's liberal arts colleges are producing not just scientists but world-class scientists out of all proportion to the size of their undergraduate student bodies. In the last 20 years, 70 Americans who received their undergraduate education in this country have won Nobel Prizes in chemistry, physics, and medicine. And of these, 16 — or more than one in five — attended liberal arts colleges. In absolute numbers, Harvard and M.I.T. lead the field, with seven and five Nobels respectively, but when the distribution of prizes is calculated in per capita terms based on current undergraduate enrollment data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, Caltech, Union College, M.I.T., Amherst, and the Cooper Union occupy the top five tiers.
The $64,000 question, of course, is why liberal arts colleges are so successful in producing scientists and engineers. Individual student talent and attitude come into play of course, for the scientific life is not for the faint of heart. But as Cech points out, private research universities such as Princeton, Stanford, and Chicago are "more selective than any of the liberal arts colleges" yet "their efficiency of production of Ph.D.'s, while excellent, lags behind that of the top liberal arts colleges." In other words, something more than raw ability must be at work here. For chemist and Nobel laureate Tom Steitz, a graduate of Lawrence University, three factors contribute to the success of liberal arts colleges: "small classes," "faculty who are motivated teachers," and "cross-training in the humanities and arts." With regard to the first two, there is no question that faculty at research-intensive universities must devote a significant part of their energies to managing a major research program, including a small army of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and technical staff; to publishing papers in the most selective publications in their field; and to jetting across the country and around the world to show the flag at national and international meetings. Not only does this activity draw them away from the kind of close interaction with students that is so much a part of the liberal arts college experience, but, frankly, they are also responding to the fact that teaching tends to carry less weight when professional advancement is at stake. In terms of the benefits scientists derive from experiencing the full breadth of the liberal arts curriculum, Steitz recalls, "One consequence of my Lawrence education that was missing from many of my graduate school classmates at Harvard was my sense of the big picture and what issues were of central importance." Those with Steitz's broad-based education are more likely than others to emerge as effective scientists, as men and women who can approach a scientific problem from many angles and who can readily grasp its social implications.
But I would add a fourth reason to Tom Steitz's list of reasons why liberal arts colleges graduate a disproportionate number of future scientists, and it pains me to do so. As the scientific enterprise has become more and more competitive with the decline in federal and state funding, undergraduates in research-intensive universities witness at first hand the stresses and strains experienced by faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows, who are constantly concerned about the fate of the next grant application or the current paper under review. When I said a moment ago that science is not for the faint of heart, I wasn't kidding. There are many root causes for the increased pressure that academic scientists experience today, but I haven't the slightest doubt that this pressure is discouraging even the best and brightest undergraduates from committing to a life in science.
All this is by way of saying that the education you are providing to your students interested in science, and the encouragement you offer them, is absolutely critical to our future.
But science education is not simply about creating scientists and engineers. It is also about instilling a comprehension of the scientific method in those who will never oversee a laboratory and giving them a full appreciation of the transformative role of science and technology in daily life. Without well-informed policymakers and a discriminating public, scientific progress will be slowed or misdirected, to everyone's detriment. From embryonic stem cells to evolution, from climate change to manned space exploration, scientists and non-scientists have found themselves at cross purposes, partly, to be sure, because the scientific community can be frustratingly insular, but largely because we, as a nation, have failed to acquire a general understanding of and respect for the foundational principles of scientific research. Had we done so, it would have been much harder to discount, distort, and otherwise politicize the recent recommendation from the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force concerning breast cancer screenings. It is ironic to me that the serious issue of false positives in women tested in their forties has been submerged by "false negatives" in the form of political rhetoric accusing the federal government of healthcare rationing.
In short, it often seems that scientists and non-scientists speak two variants of English, much as Britons and Americans have been described as one people divided by a common language. Take the term, "theory." For many in this country, the theory of evolution is just a supposition, with no more credibility than any other hypothesis. As a result, proponents of intelligent design have found a receptive audience when they have pressed for inclusion of their theory in the public school curriculum, regardless of its scientific credibility. For scientists on the other hand, Darwin's insights, tested and retested and further amplified with time, are anything but conjectural. Indeed, they constitute the most elegant — and to date the only scientifically verifiable — explanation for the extraordinary diversity of life that we enjoy on Earth.
If the metaphor of the pyramid conveys what is wrong with traditional science education for future practitioners, the metaphor for the non-scientist is the dictionary — in other words, the dreaded survey course. Too often our undergraduate humanists and social scientists are relegated to satisfying the science requirement by taking introductory survey courses that provide a watered down, insomnia-inducing raft of factoids, but no insight into either the nature or importance of science. For some years now, Princeton has been encouraging its faculty to develop small courses specifically for non-scientists, in which the intent is not to conduct a shallow survey of a field — after all, we know they will not retain the facts and figures past the final exam, and sometimes not even that long — but to teach them how scientific information is acquired and verified, and why it is relevant to their future. When I chaired a faculty committee to develop these courses, we would always ask ourselves, "Is this a course that will help a future Congresswoman or executive make good decisions when faced with technological issues?" Nothing breaks my heart more than students lamenting that the science requirement was the least favorite part of their Princeton education. If we are doing our job well, those graduates should believe that the science requirement prepared them to be effective citizens.
The liberal arts have included scientific disciplines since they were formally defined in the fifth century — namely, geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy — and are not the preserve of liberals and artists as some would have it. By engaging for four years with the remarkable breadth of the liberal arts, students build the foundation on which their future — and much more focused — academic or professional studies rest; it is here, as I like to tell our undergraduates, that they have an opportunity to prepare themselves not for one profession but for any profession, including those not yet invented. And it is here that the seeds of a life devoted to the sciences and engineering or to scientific understanding will either germinate or wither. We have our job cut out for us.
Let me conclude by thanking Hal Hartley for the invitation to speak this morning, and for your attention. I will now be happy to take some questions.