APS News

Roundtable Seeks Ways To Restructure Science Education

A diverse group of scientists, business leaders, educators and policy makers gathered at California State University in San Bernardino in April to discuss ways to reshape science education to meet the industrial needs of the 21st century. The second in a series of planned regional conferences, the California roundtable brought together students, state and federal officials, scientists from industry, national laboratories, universities and community colleges, elementary school educators, members of the local Chamber of Commerce, and even members of the local Rotary Club chapter.

The APS suggested holding regional roundtable discussions last year to encourage initiatives that recognize the differences and nature of academia and industry. The first was held at the University of Virginia in May 1994, focusing on the establishment of alliances between academia and industry. The APS hopes to carry out as many as 15 more roundtables across the country over the next few years.

Most participants agreed that more cooperation between academia and industry is needed to meet the industrial and technological needs of the next century. "These are hardly the best of times," said Tony Evans, CSUCB's president, who also praised the unusual diversity of the gathering. "Higher education is facing the greatest challenge of the last half century." Most of the plenary speakers and attendees agreed. "We must develop a coherent program between industry, the government and academia," said APS President C. Kumar N. Patel (University of California, Los Angeles). "The isolationist tendencies of universities do not serve the whole system." And according to Rep. George Brown (D-CA), the ranking Democratic minority member on the House Science Committee, "We are going through a critical period in science and education; [and] we have to reassess the relationship with the government. This conference will help us weather the changes."

Plenary speaker Walter Massey, provost of the University of California System, identified two key benefits to be realized from universities reaching out to industry: job production and economic strength. "The old paradigm was that industry and academia were on non-intersecting paths. The new paradigm is partnership," he said. "Students must interact with the non-academic environment. Entrepreneurship must be part of their education."

However, Massey cautioned that change will come slowly. "It requires a change in the attitude of the faculty, and a change in the reward system for faculty. Accountability is now part of the academic enterprise," he said. Roundtable attendee Ed Karlow (La Sierra University) agreed. "Given our entrenched traditions and habits of high inertia, becoming a player/partner will require radical changes in how we do our own business - internally as well as among ourselves - if we are ever going to join the business team," he said.

Following the plenary lectures, participants broke into a series of workshops to discuss the specific issues and make broad recommendations for further action. Topics included linking small businesses with colleges and universities; curriculum reform at the K-12 and university levels; using computer-based network technology; and the role of community colleges in training and retraining of the technological workforce.

Participants in the workshop on small businesses echoed Massey's belief that universities must become more user-friendly and customer-oriented to improve their interactions with business and industry, and suggested that universities form techology transfer offices to develop such relationships. Barriers to interaction, such as, bid processes, conflict of interest policies, and opposition to the private use of public facilities, should be reduced. And serious effort must be made not only to narrow the perception that industry and academia are too dissimilar to cooperate and to establish long-term funding sources; other than grants, which are limited by scope and term.

In the workshop on leveraging computer-based networks to create alliances between industry, academia and government, participants were provided with workstations to explore educational options on the World Wide Web, including the Hands-on Universe and Whole Frog Project from LBL. However, not all schools have access to the necessary equipment. Suggested solutions to the dilemma included contributions of hardware from industry; corresponding tax incentives to encourage such donations; the use of bulletin board services to post technology needs and surpluses; and shared training labs between business, industry, schools and universities.

Participants in the curriculum workshop concluded that while physics training produces such valuable skills as analytical thinking, problem solving techniques, and data interpretation, better communication skills should also be stressed. Industrialists in attendance urged universities to supplement the traditional scientific training with courses in business or communications. Individual faculty members could modify their lab courses to stress teamwork, timeline mangement and administrative skills. With only modest changes, students could begin to connect with the business community.

Attendees agreed that students benefit most from programs that involve "real-life" scenarios, such as research, industrial internships and cooperative ventures. However, it is vital that such programs receive encouragement, funding and college credit in order for them to be successful. "Everyone benefits from such programs," said CSUSB's Timothy Usher, a local organizer for the roundtable. "The students obtain valuable experience. Academia maintains contact with the 'real world' and obtains immediate feedback on the quality of the students they are producing. Industry receives a preview of prospective employees, as well as an opportunity for improving their education."

In another workshop, conference attendees from Harvey Mudd College described a more challenging approach to student preparation, tying it in to regional economic development. They developed an educational partnership in which local industries lacking research capabilities contract out research work to Harvey Mudd students. Initially introduced in the engineering department, the program was succesfully extended to the mathematics department and will include the physics department by next year. "Partnerships between schools and the community offer a region by region economic rejuvenation," said Rebecca Morgan, president and CEO of the Silicon Valley Network, of the concept.

At the closing plenary session, workshops representatives summarized their group's discussion and presented lists of items for future action. Session chair Michael Lubell, APS Director of Public Affairs, told the group, "The ultimate success of the Roundtable rests on the implementation of the action items."


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin