The Pipeline: Still Leaking
Relevance, Realism and Rigor
Such questions, which require analysis of current teaching practices, are of vital importance to the future of the scientific workforce of the 21st century. Many features of undergraduate programs now seem disconnected from the interests and motivation of the students who are graduating from high school. Many of these students are looking for relevance and the chance to explore how their major might prepare them for the workforce. Those from nontraditional backgrounds need more flexibility in sequencing and options, and more chances to connect with practicing scientists. They need more realism about the economic factors inherent in pursuing a career in science and engineering. Many female students are looking to identify careers that integrate a social contribution—beyond the stereotypical role of teacher. It seems a matter of urgency to resolve some of the basic tension between the rigor that science courses demand and the attention to instruction and mentoring that students need and appreciate.
This challenge does not seem impossible to address. Undergraduate science is the part of science education that can be controlled by academic scientists. Some of them have already made recommendations on new pedagogy and instructional strategies. What seems even more pertinent is the need to focus on how to design comprehensive academic courses, alongside access to social networks within individual departments and career contacts that help students to envisage their future prospects. For example, the American Institute of Physics recently published a report on Strategic Programs for Undergraduate Physics that stresses the importance of collaboration between academic faculty to improve student retention in undergraduate physics programs.
Reading the NSB report from a grass-roots perspective, I would have liked to see much more focus on the incentives and rewards that are needed to nurture those students who do register in undergraduate science and engineering courses. These are the human resources that are most likely to guarantee scientific excellence.