UD evolution: science education needs to adapt

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Olivia LaFond, Contributing Writer

 

It was on a somnolent Monday evening in March that John Rogers began his presentation, but I (and the 16 other University of Dallas students at the American Chemical Society national meeting) was hardly asleep.

Despite a long day of listening to scientific presentations, we were riveted by Rogers’ research. Far from providing a barrage of incomprehensible graphs and terms, his presentation was broken down into neat, informative segments describing the burgeoning field of ‘bioresorbable’ transient electronics — electronics that can disappear into the ecosystem the moment they are no longer needed.

Many now argue that more interdisciplinary classes and labs are the next step for the UD science department.  Professors are already beginning to tackle this concept. –Photo by Peter Sampson
Many now argue that more interdisciplinary classes and labs are the next step for the UD science department. Professors are already beginning to tackle this concept.
–Photo by Peter Sampson

Rogers, the Swanlund professor of material science and engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, pioneered the field, and his keynote speech about transient electronics was the tip of a proverbial iceberg that includes over 400 published papers, over 80 patents and hordes of prestigious awards following suit.

His work dallies at the edge of chemistry, physics and biology, seamlessly bringing together projects like transient electronics and insect-eye-imitating cameras through collaborations with scientists of wildly diverse specialties.

John Rogers seamlessly blends several scientific fields into his research.  This is partially thanks to an education that did the same. –Photo courtesy of the Chicago Council on Science and Technology
John Rogers seamlessly blends several scientific fields into his research. This is partially thanks to an education that did the same.
–Photo courtesy of the Chicago Council on Science and Technology

As we joined the throngs of scientists moseying out of the convention center after the talk, one of my fellow classmates wondered what made Rogers so successful. Genius? Hard work? A combination of the two?

While I do not doubt that genius played a hefty role, Rogers attributes much of his success to the strong scientific grounding he received as a physics and chemistry double major at MIT and to creativity fostered early in his career as a scientist. To Rogers, a scientist who routinely pushes disciplinary limits, there is no question that interdisciplinary work is the future of science.

“Most progress in science/technology these days almost always occurs at the boundaries between traditional disciplines.  Collaboration is essential,” he said.

Nevertheless, an undergraduate education focused too much on interdisciplinary work may find itself stretched too thin.

“Taking classes in other topics is important, but only if done in a way that does not sacrifice the core,” he explained.

Thus, the ideal undergraduate science curriculum must find a balance of course offerings that exposes students to new ways of thinking without sacrificing the integrity of their core scientific education.

At UD, that task is already being tackled in part by the introduction of a new interdisciplinary lab in the science department. Dr. Sally Hicks of the physics department, Dr. Ellen Steinmiller of the chemistry department and Dr. Steven Slaughter of the biology department began meeting in January to discuss a one-credit interdisciplinary lab course that would combine insights from all three areas of science. Their goal is not only to “emphasize the connections” between the general physics, biology and chemistry courses for students, Steinmiller said, but also to “emphasize the different approaches [of each discipline] toward the same goal.”

Their favorite topic example is polarized light. The wave nature of light allows it to assume a specific rotation; when this occurs, the light is “polarized.” The phenomenon can be explained by and exploited through physics, natural examples of biological species and chemical compounds capable of polarizing light in nature. Examining polarization in three distinct ways would show students the connections between their classes in each discipline, while also teaching them how the subjects come together in the laboratory.

But a familiarity with interdisciplinary thought is only the beginning of changes that could be instituted at UD in order to make its science majors more capable of engaging the scientific community. Creativity is a more difficult ingredient to foster in the classroom, however.

“The most impactful work in research, almost always starts with fundamentally new insights into the scientific frontier and/or radically unconventional approaches to grand challenges,” said Rogers.

“The technical execution that follows is extremely important, but the non-structured, open-ended creative thought that initiates the process is most essential.  Such type of cognitive activity is, in my view, similar to that involved in the creation of great art,” he added.

The best way for universities to encourage this creative thought, Rogers said, is for undergraduate students to participate in research firsthand. The troubleshooting that invariably accompanies each summertime research experience certainly delivers; yet summertime positions, frequently the only options available to UD students, leave something to be desired. During those short eight to 10 weeks, it is difficult to assimilate the background knowledge needed to complete the experiments on time; in-depth analysis of results and critical thinking about experimental design may or may not be part of that experience.

The creativity of which Rogers spoke, the creativity that is best encouraged by research experience, must go hand-in-hand with an understanding of proper scientific design. Yet this understanding is a sorely underdeveloped skill for most undergraduates. Understanding the reasoning and flow of logic in scientific papers is still foreign to most students.

Learning how to read papers is “sink or swim” for most students, according to Steinmiller; most professors don’t consider teaching how to read a paper because they themselves were never taught. It’s something they just learned.

The remedy would be to offer a course in understanding the scientific method, such as the Methods & Logic class taught by Dr. Frank Solomon to graduate students in biology at MIT. I was exposed to the course in miniature during my summer research experience at MIT. It allows students to examine the reasoning behind experiments, to question what conclusions can logically be made from which results, and to critically evaluate experimental design.

The course itself involves a moderated discussion of one paper every one to two weeks. The paper would be dissected figure by figure, with students themselves explaining the purpose of each figure, the method by which it was accomplished and why, and whether the conclusions made in the paper are valid considering the results found. The professor(s) teaching the course guides the discussion and answers questions when students are stuck.

“To sit around in a small group and talk about things like this, so the individual person can dig a little bit, that is an incredibly successful, efficient way to transmit a lot of science in a short period of time,” Solomon said. “I think it’s the best way.”

A course imitating Methods & Logic at UD would better equip students to understand their own work and that of others by teaching them to critically evaluate each step of a research project. This in turn would make them more valuable lab members and increase the respectability of science education at UD.

Another addition to the scientific curriculum could combine the interdisciplinary and the creative dimensions of science: a course in programming designed specifically for science students. Rogers said that knowledge of programming is “absolutely critical” for scientists in almost any field. Solomon, as a biology researcher, said students should at minimum know how programming and statistical analysis can contribute to an experiment.

Yet, at UD, only physics majors are required to take a programming class: computational physics, a course taught by Dr. Richard Olenick that explores ways the Python programming language can be used to create models of physical phenomena and to solve difficult equations. Requiring all science students to take this or a similar course would be ideal; such a course would expose them to a commonly used language with scientific applications such as Python or Matlab and would prepare them for real-world scenarios they will face in research settings. In addition, the problem-solving skills gained by programming knowledge may affect their creativity in experimental design. It could certainly inform them of ways to improve their data analysis.

These three changes — an interdisciplinary lab course, the addition of a Methods & Logic course and the institution of a mandatory programming course for all science majors — would be enormously beneficial to the scientific development of students at UD, teaching them not only to integrate their knowledge from multiple disciplines but also truly to understand and apply the scientific method in their own work.

*Olivia LaFond is the chief academic editor of the University of Dallas Journal of Science.

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Suggestions to improve science education at UD

1. Support the interdisciplinary lab course being developed at UD.

2. Incorporate a “Methods & Logic”-style course at UD so that students can master the scientific method.

3. Require programming experience for chemistry and biology majors in addition to physics majors.

4. Grant more funding to students in all scientific disciplines to attend major conferences, such as the ACS and APS meetings, so that they can benefit from exposure to new ideas and networking, as well as present their own research if applicable.

5. Improve support for applicants to summer research by providing information about programs well in advance, recruiting volunteers to review underclassman applications and providing more funding for on-campus opportunities.

6. Grant funding to the University of Dallas Journal of Science* to advertise, print hard-copy journals once a semester and offer small monetary awards at the end of the school year to its best contributor in each discipline, thereby supporting its mission to increase scientific literacy at UD.

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