The subtle art of teaching science

Editor’s Note: This column first appeared in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on April 18, 2019

By Donal O’Shea

According to the National Science Foundation, more than one in eight New College graduates go on to receive doctorate degrees in science and engineering. Only three universities — Caltech, Harvey Mudd College and MIT — send a greater proportion of undergraduates on to research careers requiring a doctorate. No other public university in the United States sends more than 10%, and only one other in Florida exceeds 1%.

New College not only educates scientists, it educates very distinguished ones. Bill Thurston, the mathematician who revolutionized our understanding of the topology and geometry of space, won the Fields Medal. Duncan Odom, one of Britain’s top cancer researchers, won the Crick Medal. And Emily Saarinen, an entomologist and population biologist (and current New College professor), has just won the 2019 Outstanding Undergraduate Science Teachers Award. These awards are the highest those sciences bestow.

How does tiny New College do this?

The answer turns on two truths about learning science. The first is that the undergraduate years are critical to a scientist’s development. The second is that it takes scientists to produce scientists.

Scientific fields are vast. In mine, mathematics, undergraduate and graduate students double their mathematical knowledge annually. If you don’t get started in your undergraduate years, it is difficult to catch up. Nor does knowledge suffice. Learning how to utilize that knowledge is even more important. This means understanding the theoretical ideas that animate the knowledge, and that allow you to test new facts and new knowledge against what you know. This is an art, the acquisition of which requires interaction with practicing scientists.

When it comes to preparing undergraduates for scientific careers, the top liberal arts colleges produce a greater proportion of undergraduates who become scientists than the top research universities because students work directly with faculty members who are scientists. In liberal arts colleges, laboratories are not only about research, but also about teaching the next generation of scientists. Undergraduates staff the research labs, not doctoral and post-doctoral students. So, undergraduates gain plenty of experience at a comparatively young age. They build and operate scientific instruments, and do lab presentations on what is happening elsewhere in the field. This slows the research, but is fabulous training for future scientists.

New College has 33 professors who are science and mathematics Ph.D.s, each of whom teaches and carries out scientific research. Consider, for example, the three who received tenure this year. Jayne Gardiner has contributed deep results on the sensory biology of sharks and other cartilaginous fishes. She has worked around the world, has published results with students that have found their way into the discipline’s textbooks, and she directs New College’s Pritzker Marine Biology Laboratory. David Gillman came to us from industry where he was a research scientist at Akamai. An accomplished mathematician and computer scientist, he works with students on both applied and theoretical matters: on software development and developing a mathematical framework for deep neural networks. The third, Ty Ryba, a specialist in bioinformatics and an alumnus, has done pioneering work on the difficult question of how the physical organization of genetic material, such as the three-dimensional structure of chromosomes, influences when a cell copies, reads and packages the genome. He and his students uncover clinically relevant material by computationally interrogating publicly available genomic databases.

Our professors encourage their students to take an active role in charting the questions they want to address. This is tricky. Anyone can ask questions that no one can answer. What is consciousness? Does God exist? What is in a black hole? Are the digits in the decimal expansion of pi randomly distributed, and if so why? But the art of doing science is to ask questions that are just within reach, and the answers to which will allow one to advance. Our scientists not only impart knowledge and teach students how to use it, but work with students to reframe what they want to do in ways that they can address. This requires intellectual generosity, a willingness to listen and a broad range of expertise.

Why isn’t New College’s role in educating scientists better known? This is a question for another day. For now, it is enough to have alumni, community leaders and legislators who recognize this role, and who are willing to invest in having New College help supply the human capital that the coming decades so badly need.

Donal O’Shea is president of New College of Florida.

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