Science Education: A Q and A during American Education Week

For American Education Week, Cole-Parmer takes a scan of the current state of science education with former Adjunct Professor of Biology, Christina Kissinger:

CP: What are the trends you are seeing in science education, especially on the university and graduate level?

CK: On both undergraduate and graduate levels, the trend in life sciences curricula is toward the technological side. Although traditional macroscopic biology courses, such as zoology and ecology, remain fundamental classes within the realm of life sciences, they are not as popular as they once were. In fact, a student can get a degree in a biological field without having to take those more traditional courses. One of the reasons for this is the popularity of microscopic, molecular, and analytical fields, such as microbiology, genetics and biotechnology. 

CP: What current news issues tie directly to educational opportunities?

CK: Many times there is a correlation between what you see in the news and the kinds of jobs that are currently available. It seems every year there is a recall for a food product issued as a result of an outbreak of foodborne pathogenic illnesses. One of the most frequently seen life sciences job openings in the Chicago area in recent years has been for food microbiologists. Similarly, there has been a push for the green movement, clean energy, and oil independence. In this case, the news also correlates with job openings. Biofuels companies are looking for microbiologists, molecular biologists, and engineers. Even entertainment can influence education. With the rise in popularity of television shows featuring forensic science, there has been an increase in demand from incoming college students for courses related to this field.

CP: Any emerging new majors, integrated majors, or “hot” areas within the field?

CK: Over the last decade, many large universities have begun to modify existing majors, and in some cases, have created new ones, because of the changing job market. In the life sciences, students can use their undergraduate years to become specialized in a certain area of biology. For example, at one university, the General Biology major was split into Integrative Biology and Molecular & Cellular Biology. The Integrative Biology major provides a more traditional curriculum and greater breadth of knowledge, while the Molecular & Cellular Biology major is much more focused and emphasizes recent technological advances. The Forensic Science major is a relatively recent development that ties life and physical sciences, criminology, and statistics together, so students are prepared to become, most commonly, crime lab analysts or crime scene investigators.

CP: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of degrees conferred for biological sciences increased by 31% in the 2009-2010 academic year (an increase from 2003-2004); the number conferred in physical sciences and science technologies increased by 22 percent. What do think is driving this increased interest in sciences?

CK: I think one of the biggest influences over interest and enthusiasm about science in recent years has been the issues that have come up in the news. Whether the news is about pathogens in our food, climate change, clean energy, or sustainable agriculture, these problems can only be solved by scientific research. In addition to job security, who wouldn’t want to put on their resume that they helped save the world?

CP: How do you stay up to date on what’s happening in science?

CK: I stay up to date with what’s happening in science by reading peer-reviewed journals, watching documentaries, and keeping my memberships in scientific societies up to date. Thanks to the increasing popularity of online publishing, it is easy to access scientific journals. Documentary films can be streamed from the internet at the click of a button. And, scientific societies have newsletters, websites and conventions to keep their members in the loop.   

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