In 2005, The National Academy of Sciences issued a worrisome report entitled “Rising above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future” that warned that America is slipping in competitiveness in all areas of science.
While this ought to have been a wake-up call for all Americans, in 2010, the Academy issued an update entitled “Rising above the Gathering Storm: Approaching Category 5." Not surprisingly, the findings in the update indicate that the US is still lagging in its capacity to innovate and compete and that the trend continues to move in a downward direction. For example, in 2006 (the most recent year for which data are available) 16 percent of American college students received undergraduate degrees in natural sciences or engineering as compared with 47 percent in China, 38 percent in Korea and 27 percent in France. Recommendations in the original report called for creation of 25, 000 undergraduate scholarships per year in math, science and engineering. Although the updated report indicated that Congress had taken some steps to implement the recommendation, progress has been severely lacking in this area.
Almost all US colleges and universities require that undergraduate students have some instruction in science. Unfortunately, most of these courses are lecture driven and lack a laboratory component (mainly because laboratory instruction is costly and time intensive). This is problematic because science is a laboratory driven discipline that requires data collection and analysis; neither of which is taught in most lecture settings. Recognizing the growing lack of science literacy among American undergraduate students, Leon Botstein—music director and conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra and President of Bard College an artsy liberal arts college in NY—decided to do something about it. To that end, he created a program at Bard called Citizen Science; a mandatory science course conducted during winter break that all Bard freshmen are required to take for graduation.
Citizen Science is a two and a half week long program in which students spend six hours per day immersed in laboratory science. The 2011 program taken by 480 students focused on the molecular biology of infectious diseases. Using laboratory equipment, computer modeling and classroom discussions, student explored various aspects of infectious disease research including bacterial and viral detection, creation of vaccines and techniques that can be used to manage global disease outbreaks. The students were taught by two dozen scientists who were recruited from all over the country. There are no grades or credits received by program participants. This was done to promote learning for learning sake according to Brooke Jude an assistant professor of biology and the director of Citizen Science.
Botstein, who incidentally is the brother of David Botstein a world renowned geneticist at Princeton University, has been an outspoken critic about deficiencies in American education. He previously has taken many of his colleagues to task for “shirking their responsibility to create a well-rounded citizenry.” Botstein, with help from his brother, decided to “put his money where is mouth is” by creating Citizen Science.
According to Botstein, “The most terrifying problem in American university education is the profound lack of scientific literacy for the people we give diplomas to who are not scientists or engineers.” He added, “The hidden Achilles’ heel is that while we’ve found ways to educate scientists in the humanities, the reverse has never really happened. Everybody knows this, but nobody wants to do anything about it.”
Not surprisingly, the Citizen Science Program has received mixed reviews from the 480 Bard freshmen who participated in the inaugural program. After all, a majority of the students who chose to attend Bard have a decided bent toward music and the arts, not science. Nevertheless, many students suggested that their two and half week scientific sojourn has taught them to think more critically about science. Next year’s theme for the Citizen Science program may be energy or climate change.
While Bard’s Citizen Science program is a fantastic idea, not all colleges or universities have the financial largess or scientific connections necessary to create similar programs at their institutions. Perhaps Congress ought to establish funding mechanisms (in addition to the 25,000 math and science scholarships each year) for post secondary institutions interested in replicating the Bard program.
Government officials can no longer deny what the data are showing them; science literacy in the US is plummeting and we are REALLY at risk of losing our competitive and innovative edges in math, engineering and science. Put simply, it is no longer a question of “if” but “when.”
Until next time….
Good Luck and Good Job Hunting!!!!!!