Improving science education requires rethinking academic priorities
Since President Obama’s announcement of the Educate to Innovate program in November 2009, an encouraging number of technology and media companies, non-profit organizations and government agencies have been working in concert to strengthen the nation’s approach to science education. But the reality is that the lion’s share of transformation must come from within: from school systems, in the case of K-12 education, and from the academy, in the case of higher education.
A position paper recently issued by the Nature Publishing Group (NPG) illustrates this point in the context of higher education. Vikram Savkar, Senior VP & Publishing Director for Education Markets at NPG has the story in this repost.
A significant majority, 77 percent, of the 450 faculty surveyed for the paper consider their educational responsibilities to be equally as important as research responsibilities. Only 6 percent consider research more important than education. Yet when asked to appoint a hypothetical candidate to an open tenure position in their department, the majority chose a star researcher with poor teaching skills over both a star teacher with little research background and a candidate equally skilled, though not notable, in both teaching and research.
The ripple effects of this mindset in the academy are damaging to the goals of universities. Faculty at most of our institutions are expected to both teach and conduct research; yet if they are selected largely on the basis of their excellence in research, why should be we be surprised if the quality of classroom teaching is often low, as many studies strongly suggest? Poor teaching has three regrettable consequences. First, many talented science majors who enter college with inadequate prior preparation switch out of science programs after a year of disappointing college courses. Second, many students who do stay in science programs never achieve sufficient levels of mastery in the field to launch a professional scientific career. Third, students for whom science is a side interest rather than a career don’t build the scientific literacy that will turn them into informed voters, parents, teachers, and policy-makers later in life.
There are thousands of individual superb teachers throughout higher education, to be sure, and hundreds of colleges that place great emphasis on classroom teaching. But, as the Nature Publishing Group paper illustrates, the structural incentives of the academy are in general stacked against teaching. Research brings far more funding and prestige to both universities and individuals than teaching does; no surprise, then, that university presidents and department chairs push a research agenda, and that science faculty are motivated to follow suit. The point is not that research isn’t important; on the contrary, research is the central purpose of science, and we must galvanize both investment and political will to support the needs of our research sector. But where education is weak, research has a rickety foundation. It may be thriving today, but who will perform meaningful research tomorrow, if sufficient numbers and a diversity of students are not well trained and guided through the education pipeline to the laboratory bench? Who will vote for increasing national investment in research & development if the average citizen has a poor understanding and appreciation of science? The scientific challenges our society faces are only growing, as crucial issues like climate change, diabetes, and food sustainability proliferate and intensify. Is our educational system keeping pace?
If we want to ensure that R&D prospers in the next generation, we must take a hard and candid look at the incentives that are built into the academy. Universities that profess to value teaching must ask themselves whether their department chairs and tenure committees are really asked to select excellent teachers as well as excellent researchers. If they are not, then a mandate to support teaching must be made explicit, and backed with financial awards, job security, and promotions. Funding agencies, both private and governmental, must continue their current trend of allocating increasing investment to excellence and innovation in teaching, to eventually ensure that a dedicated and successful teacher will receive comparable career rewards to those that star researchers can count on. And universities and funding agencies must work together to develop a much-needed system of evaluating teaching quality, similar to what is already in discussion in the engineering community. A reliable set of metrics will make teaching impossible to ignore. We believe that such a system, which can be produced by a concerted effort of the key players in higher education within a few years, would be a watershed in the reinvigoration of our national science capabilities.