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Science Education Is Subject of Science Forum Discussion

By A. Arif Husain
Staff Reporter

One of the panel discussions at yesterday's forum on science policy focused on the partnership between academia, industry, and government and on the future of science education.

M. R. C. Greenwood, associate director for science of the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy, chaired the panel, entitled "Science in the National Interest: A Shared Commitment." Four speakers presented topics involving both undergraduate and graduate education.

Sheila Tobias, lecturer and author of several social science books, including her latest Science as a Career: Perceptions and Realities, spoke on the weaknesses of current educational programs.

Tobias described education as a means to stimulate demand in industry, but she felt that science training should be more inclusive. Tobias argued that the discovery of knowledge, the primary directive in academic research, is only one of the many opportunities made available through science education.

A strong science background would be equally useful in areas such as politics, providing background necessary for legislation and policy-making, Tobias said.

Tobias criticized the ideologies expressed by today's educators, claiming that many potential students are turned away from science because of elitism and fixed stereotypes. She proposed programs that would make science education an integral part of general education.

In contrast, James L. Vincent, chief executive officer of Biogen Inc., portrayed the American higher-educational system as the "envy of the world." Science education has been successful in developing problem-solvers and in teaching students how to think, he said.

Vincent suggested that more emphasis be made to move science from the university setting to the private sector. In light of recent economic changes, he predicted that education in science will be used to fuel growth in entrepreneurial positions, moving away from academic research.

With similar sentiment, Professor D. Allan Bromley, dean of engineering at Yale University and science adviser to President Bush, addressed the need to include more real-world experience in graduate education.

"The average degree has a half-life that is shrinking fast," Bromley said. Graduate science education should be broad enough to provide more openings in the face of diminishing career opportunities, Bromley said. His suggestions included increasing the exchange between universities and emphasizing leadership in industry.

John A. Armstrong, retired vice president for science and technology at IBM and 1993-93 Compton Lecturer at the Institute, presented more suggestions for development of graduate programs in science.

Since more than 40 percent of PhDs in scientific fields will work outside academia, the programs for education should cater more to industry careers, Armstrong said. He proposed that doctoral programs be broadened in scope and shortened in length. Like Bromley, he cited practical experience as an essential part of graduate training.

Greenwood closed by reiterating the need for solid science education as part of the collegiate and graduate curricula. Science training will provide intellectual preparation for generalized study as it will spread itself into other fields that influence researchers, she said.