Hype and Glory

Dissecting scientific promise from reality

As we barrel toward the potential scientific splendor of next century's Oz, few may stop to question whether the road there is really paved in gold. And why should we? Over the past decade, science has advanced further than at any other period this century. From where we stand, geneticists are feverishly working to map DNA code while information technologists revel in their newfound respect. Such a steady string of breakthroughs has led us to question more, uncover more, and demand more. The future looks bright indeed.

But what lies under the blanket of optimism we've thrown on tomorrow's landscape? Will this new ethos lead to our own downfall, as some New York scientists and professors argue? Or are their concerns unfounded? A survey of the trends in science education today attempts to pinpoint exactly where we are—and where we're headed.

Neil Murray, professor of computer sciences, SUNY at Albany: "The staggering number of students heading into the sciences is a phenomenon. Graduates have excellent career opportunities now and, as a result, our undergraduate numbers have nearly tripled. But it just can't continue growing at the same rate. We need to take a more sober attitude to what this really means because the market will taper off."

SUNY Albany's computer science program has grown from less than 200 students seven years ago to 360 as of this past March. Undergraduate numbers also jumped from 1125 to 1354 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute this year, while the Rochester Institute of Technology reports an increase of almost 15 percent in admissions over the past three years. Some attribute this upward trend to a new interest in the field from women.

Reed Hainsworth, professor of biology, Syracuse University: "A woman in my classroom used to be a rarity. Now they constitute the majority. I especially noticed this last year when I had a lab that was entirely female."

Women currently make up 51 percent of Rochester's School of Science and 52 percent of the entire Arts and Sciences undergraduate class at New York University. And it's not difficult to understand the forces that are fanning the flames of this hot career track. Booming tech stocks have launched both the Big Board and Nasdaq to record heights, with the biotech and info tech industries, in particular, claiming explosive growth. The result? Employment opportunities are multiplying faster than bacteria in a petri dish.

Doyle Daves, Dean of Sciences, Rensselaer: "The salaries are going through the roof...and students have many more options. Right now there are five new jobs for every one college graduate."

Jack M. Wilson, J. Erik Jonsson '22 Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer: "This is the'Decade of the Nerd.' All of those guys with bow ties and pocket protectors are becoming millionaires, which is nice to see. They have a real advantage in the job market."

But it's the drive of this market that may in fact irrevocably alter the face of science education as we know it. With such emphasis on the high-tech trend, an unforeseen consequence could be the death of traditional sciences. To meet demand, some universities are even offering a new combination of science and business B.A. and M.A. courses. As a result, with funds being siphoned to these programs, others must be sacrificed.

According to Daves: "Everyone wants to play in the same game and this poses a tremendous challenge. We have a balanced faculty, but we're facing challenges in keeping other areas vital and successful."

Waning interest from staff and students in the traditional science core has led some universities to completely redesign the parameters of their curricula. In a few instances, this has translated into pared-down offerings. In others, though, the change has been more dramatic, with whole programs facing the knife.

Kathy Adams, secretary for the Biological Sciences Department, Columbia University: "We had to drop zoology and botany more than four years ago because we didn't have the faculty to teach the classes or the interest from students. We replaced them with cellular and molecular biology, which is the direction of science anyway."

Yet Wilson disagrees: "Who is going to invent the new language if you only have people studying C++, for example? It's very shortsighted. We need to start asking how that zoology department can contribute to the other sciences. This is a very, very important element to the whole thing. Why kill the program? Instead, change it."

Some administrators also fault the government for effectively squashing various avenues of inquiry.

Herb Chase, professor of clinical medicine at College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia: "The government decides that a disease needs to be researched and we find cures for cystic fibrosis or a sickle-cell disease. But this cancels out a lot of other research which may seem trivial to them. It's sort of like censorship."

To add to these concerns, professors worry that their colleagues will abandon the ivory tower for more lucrative nonacademic jobs, leaving glaring holes in staff rosters.

Marvin Druger, chairman of the Science Teaching Department, Syracuse University: "We're moving toward a national crisis in terms of qualified science teachers. We're going to face a real shortage in the next decade which will hit everyone, including K to 12 levels. We need a sudden increase in teaching as a career as well as more money devoted to their education. We also need to motivate those already involved, because most of them have given up. We need to get them focused."

Last March the Associated Press reported that over 100,000 teachers will have to be hired over the next 10 years to support the student enrollment glut. Yet, with many instructors lacking a solid foundation in science, it is feared students will encounter a case of the blind leading the blind.

According to some professors, the most alarming trend, though, hits even closer to home. American high school students simply aren't as well prepared as their competitors abroad. Rensselaer states that 35 percent of their M.A. science students are foreign-born, a figure that has risen greatly over the last five years and is expected to keep rising.

Explains Wilson: "We don't have enough American grads, ironically, at the same time that we have a demand for them. We have a lot of international grads, which signals that the U.S. is importing talent, and this will lead to huge imbalances....Universities will need to be like companies, and we're going to have to ensure the raw materials—brilliant professors and brilliant students. Science education has weakened, and that's a problem. We need vertical integration, and to follow a process of preparing students. We need to dip into the precollege area, to start teaching basics at school. We really have to take control of this."

Before it takes control of us.

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