Originally published in the Stanford Daily as part of a column series known as Adventures in Academia that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.
Last week, I had the pleasure of hearing from Bruce Alberts, former head of the National Academy of Sciences and the current editor of the journal Science, discuss science education and his own path in graduate school.
After years of arduous work, he became the first person in his department's history at Harvard to fail a dissertation defense. For most, their careers would be finished. Over the course of the next year, however, he found new mentors and new meaning in his work, and Alberts managed to earn his doctorate and eventually discover many of the proteins behind DNA replication. Today, his textbook is the "bible" of the field.
It is a wonderful success story, but few students fail at the dissertation stage. They abandon science when they are in grade school or when they take their first introductory university class. They leave before anyone knew they were there in the first place. How many students abandon the sciences like Alberts, but never had a mentor to bring them back?
Allow me to speak from experience. I came to Stanford with two potential majors checked on the new student adviser sheet - biology and political science. I have managed to cover those areas well, but something changed over the past two years.
I started taking political science classes when I arrived at Stanford, but by winter quarter, I had rekindled my interests in the life sciences. I had no idea that it was already too late - chemistry is only offered once a year. While it did not help that my adviser was a political science professor, I had no one to blame but myself. Chemistry is simply not a subject I will be exposed to during my time at Stanford.
So I changed my academic plans, taking the Human Biology core. HumBio was the first exposure to science I had at Stanford. Before it, I had an average class size of sixteen; now I was taking a class with more than 300 other students.
Simultaneously that year, I talked with several faculty members in different science fields, asking questions about science and how I could be a part of it. Some were enthusiastic, but none ever encouraged me to continue my studies.
I looked at the equation before me: large lecture classes with memorization-intensive coursework plus little support plus little opportunity to be involved in science equals bad Stanford education. So I left.
I grew up watching Star Trek, the last bastion of philosophical television before the reality revolution. I grew up with the passion to explore new frontiers, to discover the unknown, to boldly go where no one has gone before. I would never have thought that such a background would be so incompatible with my undergraduate science experience, nor would I have guessed that the professor who has taught me more about evidence and data would be a member of the History department and not Biology.
Open inquiry is the very value that seems most lacking in Stanford's science classes. Everything is so certain, the answers known, the work predictable. Kudos to the Biology Department for experimenting with its lab sequence this year. But one course sequence among many just does not change the underlying dogma. As someone who wanted to know the laws of the world, I have come up just a little bit short.
President Barack Obama has called for thousands of more students to enter STEM fields and become the innovative vanguard in the 21st century. He is up against enormous obstacles, but perhaps Stanford and other schools can start to make the process just a little easier. Here are some suggestions:
First, create science classes for non-science majors. Berkeley has "Physics for Presidents," a popular class that was recently published in book format. Stanford offers physics at different levels, but the value of mechanics equations is lost on most other majors. Focus instead on the big questions and the process of science.
Second, increase support for students by increasing faculty interaction early on, reducing freshman year requirements, and increasing the frequency of the courses offered. Having a little more flexibility coupled with the courses described above may actually attract new students to science fields.
Finally, courses should build the scientific method into the curriculum and deemphasize rote memorization. There have been too many Academy reports about the quality of science education in this country. The problem is obvious, the solutions are known. There are no excuses now.
I commend Bruce Alberts and other scientists who are trying to bring back the primacy of science education to our nation's universities. Perhaps we will do right by the next generation. For me, I will boldly go in a different direction.
Posted on November 16, 2009