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Teaching and Guiding Today's Scientists

The crucial role of liberal arts colleges in educating the next generation of scientists
University Business, Feb 2008

CHANGES IN THE WAY scientists work are making not just science education but scientific research at liberal arts colleges more important than ever. More "all-star" graduate students consider teaching careers in liberal arts colleges. A careful examination of what is going on should inform prospective students and funding agencies alike.

Liberal arts colleges have long played a far more important role in the production of the nation's scientists than their enrollments have suggested. This has been known at least since the 1980s. In the April 2007 issue of <em>University Business,</em> Richard Ekman, president of The Council of Independent Colleges, updated the case in a compelling manner.

Ekman's data are clear: It is not just a few elite liberal arts colleges that are essential to the nation's supply of scientists; almost all are. To cite just one example, <b>Oberlin College</b> (Ohio), with one-tenth the undergraduate enrollment of the <b>University of Wisconsin-Madison,</b> produced ten physics majors who went on to earn doctorates between 2001 and 2004, while UW-Madison produced only 19.

The transformation of modern scientific research holds the promise of increasing the role of these colleges. In "The Dawn of Networked Science," in the September 7, 2007, <em>Chronicle of Higher Education,</em> Diana Rhoten described the specific impact the internet is having on scientific research. For anyone watching what is going on in scientific laboratories anywhere, her case is both apt and descriptive of further changes to come.

Today, data can be pooled and parsed out again to scientists worldwide.

Rhoten acknowledges what physicist Alvin Weinberg once labeled "Big Science"-the clustering of scientists and millions of dollars of equipment not just in a few countries or regions but at just a few sites in those regions. Such examples of Big Science as the Manhattan Project are familiar to all of us.

More recently, however, we have seen the way in which collaboration can now transcend regional and even national boundaries. The most famous example of what Rhoten calls "Team Science" is undoubtedly the Human Genome Project. Hundreds of scientists working in six countries unraveled the human genome far more rapidly than anyone had predicted possible. This worldwide collaboration heralded a new degree of interaction.

For Rhoten, the most telling stage, "Networked Science," is in its infancy. Now the sharing of data can be instantaneous, or it can be pooled and parsed out again to hundreds if not thousands of scientists around the world.

There are examples everywhere, and it is easy for most of us to find them on our own campuses. Three involve my colleagues at <b>Ursinus College</b> (Pa.). One faculty member and his undergraduate researchers are carrying out data analysis on nuclear structure based on experiments they and others conducted at the National Superconducting Laboratory more than a thousand miles away.

Others are using neuroimaging and analyzing cognitive data on campus to help manage the consequences of a genetic deletion in children being treated at a major children's hospital miles away. And now people are sharing, almost instantaneously, wonderful high-resolution images of Antarctic core samples for comparison and analysis, not just on the Ursinus campus but in labs around the globe.

What does the rise of Networked Science mean for American education? First, it means that more and more graduate students planning academic careers can think in terms of continuing their research on liberal arts college campuses. They will not only have access to all the data they need; they will be able to be involved as well in the framing of experiments and research at sites remote from their own labs.

Second, it has implications for undergraduate education. As Ekman argued, the percentage of liberal arts students doing scientific research is far higher than at large universities. Now it will be easier than ever for students at liberal arts colleges, away from multi-million-dollar accelerators, to engage in research. That is unequivocally a good thing for the nation's supply of scientists in the coming decades.

The case for scientific literacy is clear, and it is good for science and good for the country if more and more students do scientific research as part of their undergraduate education. But there is another reason to promote science at those institutions in which teaching is done by regular faculty members who understand that doing research is part and parcel of the education of science majors.

Having been trained as a historian, I believe the intrinsic moral content of doing scientific research is too little noted. In her aptly titled book, <em>The Dignity of Working Men</em> (Harvard University Press, 2000) <b>Harvard</b> sociologist Mich?le Lamont describes the link between people who do work involving tangible things and integrity. As a nonscientist, I have marveled that when I have asked scientists what they learned from their first research experiences, over and over again the first thing they mention is integrity.

As the late Nobel laureate Richard Feynman wrote, "In science you learn a kind of standard of integrity and honesty." Science, in short, is bound up with the discipline of accepting the data-not the desired or preconceived outcome but the evidence.

Science fosters integrity, but the horrors of the 20th century add up to create a compelling case that mastering science is not enough; moral and ethical issues must be part of the equation. Liberal arts colleges that have a culture of scientific research are the most likely to promote discussion of moral issues and ethical dilemmas. Such discussions are, in fact, the essence of the liberal arts.

Mastering science is not enough-moral and ethical issues must be part of the equation.

As V?clav Havel said in his 1995 Harvard commencement address, our capacity to make scientific discoveries is at an all-time high, but the 21st century challenge is to have our "conscience catch up."

The best science PhDs committed to research and teaching ought to look to liberal arts colleges. Students interested in careers in science should not be seduced by the glamour of the big universities without also considering liberal arts colleges. That is also truer than ever for funders.

We need to constantly appreciate the significance of what liberal arts colleges are doing to ground the education of our next generation of scientists in moral and ethical values.

<em>John Strassburger is president of Ursinus College. A version of this column was presented to the Festival of Thinkers in Abu Dhabi and Dubai in October 2007.</em>

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