Teaching and Guiding Today's Scientists: The Crucial Role of Liberal Arts Colleges in Educating the Next Generation of Scientists

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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 University Business, 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, Oberlin College (Ohio), with one-tenth the undergraduate enrollment of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 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, Chronicle of Higher Education, 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.

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.

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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.

NETWORKED SCIENCE: RESEARCH ANYWHERE

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 Ursinus College (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. …