Small Colleges: Tops in Training Scientists: Looking to These Colleges to Address the Shortage of U.S. Scientists Is a Wise Investment

By Ekman, Richard | University Business, April 2007 | Go to article overview

Small Colleges: Tops in Training Scientists: Looking to These Colleges to Address the Shortage of U.S. Scientists Is a Wise Investment


Ekman, Richard, University Business


IN THE FACE OF A CHRONIC shortage of U.S. scientists and engineers, only one question really matters: Why is it so difficult to train scientists?

Proposals for addressing the shortage of scientists are plentiful and well known. A 2005 National Academies of Sciences and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine report, "Rising Above the Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future," has had wide circulation. President Bush's Science and Mathematics Access to Retain Talent (SMART) grant program tops a set of new government efforts to encourage young people to study science. These initiatives, like most proposals for addressing the problem, concentrate on assisting large institutions to produce more science graduates.

Intuitively, it appears sensible to focus there, on the largest producers of both college graduates and PhDs. However, intuition can be misleading. In this case, quite counterintuitively, the most efficient producers of new scientists turn out to be small colleges and universities.

Why is it so difficult to train scientists? And why do small colleges do it better than the large universities?

It is difficult because the sciences are inherently cumulative fields. If a student cannot master the skills and knowledge in Chemistry 101, he or she cannot succeed in Chemistry 201. Small colleges do a better job of training scientists because their students are more likely to persist in comparison with science majors at large universities.

A giant lecture course can offer little help to a student who stumbles on one unit in the course. Some large universities have surmounted this problem: Virginia Tech's "Math Emporium," for example, shows how large institutions can successfully use technology to provide tutorials for students.

The National Center for Academic Transformation, led by IT in education expert Carol Twigg, has also helped universities use technology to increase students' grasp of course content and to reduce attrition in large, lower-level courses. A few highly selective, large universities consistently graduate large numbers of scientists, but too many large institutions have dismal attrition rates.

PROMISING APPROACHES IN SCIENCE EDUCATION

Meanwhile, at highly selective liberal arts colleges such as Oberlin (Ohio), Swarthmore (Pa.), Mount Holyoke (Mass.), and

Williams (Mass.), many graduates--disproportionate numbers--major in the sciences and go on to earn doctoral degrees. These small colleges graduate a much smaller absolute number of students than large universities, but the percentages of their students who pursue and complete PhDs in the sciences is very high.

Critics dismiss what happens in elite small colleges as not relevant to national planning. They argue that the students at these colleges are among the nation's brightest and would do well anywhere, and that the small scale of these efforts will never meet a national need.

What critics fail to see is that many other, less affluent, less selective independent colleges also produce disproportionately large shares of PhD scientists. There is something about the format of small colleges and their approach to introductory science teaching that prevents the high attrition rates that are typical of larger institutions.

A promising approach to answering the question of why scientists are so difficult to train, therefore, may be to draw upon the many smaller, independent institutions with proven track records of successfully graduating science majors.

One recent CIC program illustrates how this strategy might work. Between 2001 and 2005, CIC conducted an annual competition that recognized outstanding achievement in undergraduate science education. Between 30 and 70 institutions each year competed to win a $10,000 prize. The program, funded by the Philadelphia-based Russell Pearce and Elizabeth Crimian Heuer Foundation, awarded two to four prizes each year. …

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