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Investing in the Future of Science Education

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Council of Independent Colleges
2009 Presidents Institute
Hyatt Regency Coconut Point
Bonita Springs, Florida

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Thank you, Dr. Mullen. Good morning.

To be here with the leaders in the greater reach of higher education in the United States is particularly exhilarating. That the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC) has become the nation’s largest annual gathering of American college and university Presidents, makes it all the more impressive.

I am asked to address “Investing in the Future of Science Education.” It is always risky to address the future of anything. However, being an avowed optimist — and not averse to some risk — I believe that there are things we can affirm about the future that will indicate direction, and that strongly signify the value of investing — NOW — in science education.


It always is wise to begin with a broader context, and its potential implications.

The world has changed in many — and dramatic — ways over the past months. While the shifts have seemed sudden, most were years in the making, and many are the product of the flattening and interlinking of our world, so that the fates and fortunes of nations and economies rise and fall as one.

What began as a sub-prime mortgage lending crisis in the U.S., triggered by poorly-originated loans and falling real estate prices, was exacerbated by over-leveraged/globally-linked capital flows, complicated financial instruments, and, sometimes, less-than-transparent financial trading schemes. This created a credit collapse that reverberated throughout the global economy. The resultant drastic fall in global financial markets, the de-leveraging of hedge funds and other financial institutions, the marking-to-market of illiquid assets, and enormous consumer debt have led to what essentially has become a global recession.

As growth has slowed, oil prices have fallen, as have prices for many commodities, because global demand has softened. While welcome, as far as the price at the pump and the cost of consumer goods are concerned, the price drops signal the massive slowing of the global economy, including our own.

Underlying economic weaknesses have brought us to the brink of this global recession. Recessionary news from around the world makes it more evident than ever that global economies are inextricably interlinked and interconnected — i.e. that “the world is flat.”

A longer-range outlook, which transcends the current global economic decline, is drawn from the National Intelligence Council report, “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World,” which examines key global trends likely to shape future events.

A global multipolar system is emerging as developing nations rise in relative wealth and economic power. Despite the recent faltering of global financial and economic systems, expected continued global economic growth will pressure key resources — especially energy, food, and water supply. Climate change is likely to exacerbate resource scarcities, particularly water. The potential for conflict and continued terrorism will increase, owing to rapid changes and the spread of lethal capabilities.

The report makes for fascinating, albeit sobering, reading, especially for a scientist, because most of the relative certainties, key uncertainties, their likely impacts, and potential consequences, contain issues of science, either at their core, or in their mitigation.

Within this broader picture, and especially during these early days of the new year, we, as a nation, are consumed with change — change in national leadership, change in national direction, the impact of stringent economic times at home, and a faltering global economy. Much change, too, as we know, is demanded by the national and the global energy security picture, and the critical need to mitigate climate change.

In this context, the United States faces a new — and more complex — economic future, in which past assumptions are no longer valid, and proposed solutions — for government, for financial institutions, for commerce and industry, and for people — are evolving almost daily.

Our national ability to contend with the consequences of global trends, the imperative for global competitiveness, and, indeed, the revival of our own economy, will rest, largely, upon our ability to bring scientific knowledge effectively to bear on the multiple challenges we face. This will occur through the new discoveries and innovations that give birth to new thinking, and to the creation of thriving new enterprises, and the rejuvenation of existing industries. These demand a robust contingent of scientists and engineers, mathematicians, and technological professionals.


Last month, I participated in a roundtable discussion — hosted at Princeton University — on innovation, with national leaders in politics, business, research, and education. It featured Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, who, repeatedly, stated that the new Congressional agenda may be summed up in four words: science, science, science, and science.

While there will be competition for federal resources, as the new Administration strives to put the economy back on track, Speaker Pelosi and the assembled leaders concurred that investing in science is the most important investment we could make for progress in health, education, energy security, national security, and for job creation. Speaker Pelosi pledged that an economic recovery package must emphasize science, as well as public works, as a path forward for the nation.


The premise for my discussion this morning evolves from this context, from the unique role science and engineering can play in addressing national and global challenges, and from what may be a new set of converging forces which will give particular focus to the importance of science.

Current recessionary economic trends, long-term concern over global challenges that create instability, acknowledgement of the need to bolster American competitiveness, recognition of the importance of science in meeting these goals, a change in national leadership, and a sense that our nation is turning a corner — these forces are leading to a growing recognition that science — especially the expanded arena of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), will play a pivotal role in meeting and mitigating challenge.

Let me illustrate with a few examples:

Consider health care. With both cost — and the uninsured — a concern, technologies and procedures that speed diagnosis of disease, and lead to earlier, less expensive, more effective treatment are valued. Our growing ability to use visualization built on biomedical imaging technologies: magnetic resonance imaging, sonography, and computed tomography — is leading to improved accuracy, earlier referrals, and less invasive treatment procedures.

All of us are feeling the effects of reeling financial markets. But, in the future, as we face these challenges, improved data mining, new techniques in trending analysis, and in risk assessment will help us to spot anomalies, fraud, breeched security, and systemic vulnerabilities.

Science will help us to mitigate the interlinked challenges of energy security and climate change. We must, and we will, find ways to use existing energy sources more benignly. We, also, must speed the development and deployment of alternative energy sources, and to design in ways to use less energy as we live our lives. Advances in materials science are boosting the efficiency and durability of wind turbines, and of solar absorption in photovoltaic cells. Biomimetic materials for cladding, and innovative architectural designs, enable buildings to produce potable water in hot, humid climates, and to draw power from aerodynamically shaped buildings, equipped with wind turbines, that capture the amplified speed and power of the wind.

The global scourges of HIV-AIDs, malaria, leishmaniasis, and other diseases, ultimately will respond to research at the molecular level in fundamental biological science. With the enormous burgeoning of biological data, scientists must access supercomputers to assess and uncover potentially significant pharmacological leads.

While the benefits of scientific discovery and technological innovation have been known for some time, what is different is the focus of our national leadership, in the White House and in the U.S. Congress, on the importance of science, together with the rise of a number of coalitions specifically focused on the role of science and engineering in meeting challenges — for example, the U.S. Council on Competitiveness and its Energy Security, Innovation and Sustainability Initiative, which I co-lead, and which brings together corporate CEOs, university presidents, and labor leaders around the common goal of enhancing U.S. competitiveness — in this case, vis-a-vis energy security and sustainability.

This convergence of forces may indicate new entrepreneurial directions for all sectors. America’s private, independent higher education institutions, with their emphasis on critical thinking, and deep commitment to excellence in undergraduate education, have a critical role to play.

All of the challenges we face require robust innovation of the highest order. And innovation, on the scale needed, requires consistent investment in research and development, and, especially, consistent investment in human capital — in particular, in the “intellectual security” of a robust American science and engineering workforce.


As a university president, and as a theoretical physicist, I have deep concerns that our national innovation capacity is in jeopardy. Converging forces, that have been operating for decades, have created what I term the “Quiet Crisis.” These forces have eroded the production of scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technologists required to further the discovery and innovation upon which we built a primary global leadership role, and upon which new industries have been built.

The scientists and engineers, who came of age in the post-Sputnik era, are retiring. At the same time, we no longer produce sufficient numbers of new graduates to replace them. The resulting talent gap already is evident in energy — in the nuclear arena, as interest in nuclear power revives, and as more and more nuclear power plant operators apply for relicensing. It, also, is evident in the oil and gas sectors as global demand increases for these key commodities.

For some decades, the United States has reaped extraordinary benefit from the talents of international students who have enrolled in our colleges and universities, and have remained here to work, to teach, and to conduct their research. The fall-off of these talented individuals after September 11th 2001, when immigration policy erected barriers, was felt in industry and academia across the nation. With changes to these policies, international students are returning to our campuses, now. But, other nations have invested in their own education and research enterprises, and can offer opportunities for their own scientists and engineers to study and work at home. The “flattening” world means, as well, that there is demand for them elsewhere, not just in the United States. We are in a fierce global competition for talent.

Equally — our demographics have shifted. The United States has a “new majority” now, comprising young women and the racial and ethnic groups that, traditionally, have been underrepresented in our advanced science and engineering schools — as teachers, researchers, and practitioners. It is to these “nontraditional” young people to whom we, now, must turn for our future cohort of scientists and engineers. We must find ways to interest them in careers in science and engineering, to mentor them through the rigors of these disciplines, and to see that they continue on — through advanced study — to full careers. We must foster this interest among all of our young people. There is an urgent need for our nation to tap our full talent pool, including, young women and minorities.

The “Quiet Crisis” is “quiet” because the true impact has been unfolding gradually over time — it takes decades to educate a biomolecular researcher or a nuclear engineer. It is a “crisis” because our national capacity for innovation rests solely upon their talents, and upon our ability to interest them in and excite them to the marvels of science and engineering — to the wonders of discovery and innovation.

Concern that the United States is failing to keep pace in competitiveness, and in the global talent race, has resulted in a surge of actions aimed at improving STEM education in this country. Major corporations and private foundations are investing significant resources to address this challenge. State governments and federal agencies are trying to catalyze improvements, as well.

For the past decade, groups within all key sectors have underscored the dangers inherent in the “Quiet Crisis” to their own endeavors and to the nation. They currently are calling upon the new administration to take sustained action to address these issues. Suggestions include a public campaign to highlight the importance of, and need for, increased numbers of STEM graduates; funding for innovative programs to recruit, retrain, and renew our STEM K-12 teaching force; authorization and funding for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act with an increased emphasis on science; funding for the 2007 America Competes Act; and improved STEM content standards with higher education pathways.


It is here that the contribution of the independent higher education sector becomes so critical. The small and mid-sized private, liberal arts colleges and universities may be among our best national assets in shepherding undergraduates through these demanding disciplines to advanced study, and in helping the nation to foster a significant cohort of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics professionals.

STEM disciplines are, by their nature, cumulative, and students cannot advance until they have mastered the fundamentals. The introductory STEM classes in the smaller institutions of higher learning have greater potential to reach students, to monitor their individual progress, to extend encouragement, support, and remedial assistance, to underscore their interest, to help them succeed. These are advantages that larger institutions simply cannot match. Smaller institutions, also, offer unique environments where very brilliant undergraduates have the opportunity to work as true partners in science with their professors.

The Council’s recent Heuer Foundation Awards program has identified and recognized this particularly unique contribution. The awards, made between 2001 and 2005, recognized outstanding achievement in undergraduate science education and awarded prizes to 13 member institutions8 that had created and fostered effective science programs. One case in point is the award to Allegheny College, whose current President was kind enough to introduce me, for its outstanding neuroscience program, where a third of neuroscience majors continue their neuroscience education in graduate programs, and nearly as many go on into other graduate science programs. Juniata College was another awardee. It tripled the number of its chemistry majors, with 60 percent going on to graduate school in chemistry — 70 percent of them women. The Juniata experience is particularly exciting because of the need to bolster the participation of women and under-represented groups in advanced science.

So, it is clear that the independent college and university focus on science education is effective. We know it works because a number of our Nobel Laureates in science have come from independent colleges — including, as two recent examples, Peter Agre, who attended Augsburg College in Minnesota, and received the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry; and John C. Mather who attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, and received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2006.

I encourage you, first and foremost, to continue to do what you are doing, and to expand your science programs in response to new trends. The current convergence of forces, as I have suggested, may offer the smaller independent colleges a particularly attractive arena — undergraduate science education — to pursue and to bolster.

There are some suggestions to potentially increase the effectiveness of science programs, that I posit for consideration.

Administrative policies that support women faculty, and all faculty with families, are one important step. Another is to strengthen the transparency and fairness of the tenure process. Support at the highest administrative levels is critical to enhance and speed success.

A third is to seek out and promote a science professoriate that showcases career paths for new “under-represented majority” students. The demographics of a science or mathematics department speak volumes, however silently, to students who look to faculty as role models and indicators of their own future career paths. While making immediate changes may not be possible, it is important to keep them in mind and to set long-term goals.

The university I am privileged to lead has made — and will continue to make — several systemic, university-wide approaches to advance women and diverse faculty members in academic science and engineering careers. We are carrying out this commitment by increasing awareness and understanding of the issues, improving social and support networks, mentoring, and peer review of faculty women. We are taking steps to reduce attrition, to increase representation of women among the senior faculty and administrative ranks, to make advancement processes more transparent and fair, and to carefully monitor and evaluate our own performance.

We have been particularly fortunate with a program called RAMP-UP, funded by an ADVANCE grant from the National Science Foundation. The program is intended to reform the university advancement processes to increase the participation of women in science and engineering, particularly in the senior ranks. Using a model of self-regulation, RAMP-UP puts the work of reforming academic advancement in the hands of the self-regulating mechanisms found at all levels of the university: at the level of the individual, the department, the schools, and the administration.

RAMP-UP organizers have introduced a variety of initiatives to assist individuals in developing their career trajectories, and to assist departments in addressing leadership by senior women among the faculty. Workshops explore barriers to advancement, with an emphasis on communication, advocacy, and advancement reform. The leaders are engaging the academic community in discussion, analysis, and conceptualization of the issues, building networks, and — most of all — building trust.

To further these initiatives, Rensselaer now offers childbirth, parental, and family leave for graduate students under a new policy designed to help them pursue their academic goals, while at the same time accommodating changing family circumstances.

To further these ends, we are creating a Center for Faculty Diversity, under the aegis of the Provost. Under RAMP-UP, and our new Center, we intend to make our campus more welcoming and supportive for women and minority faculty members, and to strengthen our efforts to increase the number of young women and minority students on our campuses, especially in engineering and science.

To these measures, I would add yet another. As our world globalizes, it has become almost imperative for students to have a sustained international experience — so that they graduate with multicultural sophistication, intellectual agility, and a global perspective. Twenty-first century challenges are seldom borne of a single issue. They are complex, interlinked, often multilateral. To operate within this challenging context, students need to be comfortable collaborating across borders, and in recognizing previously unforeseen opportunities. As students face a flattening world — with the globally interlinked marketplace of ideas and forces — they must be prepared, to thrive, to contribute, and to lead within this context — to bear all of these things in mind, and to reflect how they go about addressing challenges, or bring together and motivate others to do so.

To cultivate these attributes in our students at Rensselaer, we are embarking on a program for engineering students that we call Rensselaer Engineering Education Across Cultural Horizons program (or REACH).

One of the first of its kind in the nation, REACH expects and facilitates every engineering student to complete an international experience as part of his or her undergraduate education. This may be through formal study abroad programs, international internships, overseas research fellowships, or programs like Semester at Sea.

REACH kicked off this academic year with about 60 engineering students, who will spend the spring semester at partner universities in Denmark and Singapore. A concomitant number of Danish and Singaporean students will come to Rensselaer in the spring, as well. The percentage of students going abroad will increase gradually through 2015, when REACH will be fully implemented, and all engineering juniors will be expected to participate in an international experience.

REACH builds upon earlier undergraduate engineering international programs, and benefits from our long-standing architecture study-abroad program, where junior architecture students spend a semester abroad in Rome, Shanghai, and India. In addition, selected Rensselaer science students spend the summer at CERN — the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

For a broader global outreach, some universities have established campuses abroad, especially in the Middle East — Dubai, Qatar, and most recently Saudi Arabia, as examples. Generally, there has not been a lot of overlap between the two campuses, except for faculty exchanges. Rensselaer has taken the route of partnerships with universities abroad in both developed and developing nations, including China, India, and Singapore, in Denmark, Germany, and the UK, and more recently in Africa, through the Clinton Global Initiative.

It is possible, also, to expand and enhance science education through creative collaboration between major universities and liberal arts colleges. Large research-intensive universities offer their own undergraduate and graduate students infrastructure and research-oriented faculty for large-scale, high-end research. Liberal arts colleges contribute equally talented undergraduates who have been uniquely, almost individually, educated and engaged, and who bring a focused, yet broader, and always unique, perspective, to research endeavors. Such collaboration offers the opportunity for undergraduates at research universities to broaden their horizons, and to work, one-on-one, with faculty mentors, while undergraduates from independent colleges would have the opportunity to work on leading-edge research problems in world class research platforms.

At Rensselaer, each of our major sponsored research endeavors has the involvement of Rensselaer undergraduates and graduate students, and undergraduates from partner institutions, as well. For example, our National Science Foundation (NSF) funded Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center for Directed Assembly of Nanostructures, has collaborative arrangements with Williams, Mount Holyoke, Spelman, Morehouse, and Smith colleges, and with the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez.

Similarly, our NSF-funded Engineering Research Center for Smart Lighting — which is advancing light emitting diode (LED) technology in novel materials, device technologies, and system applications — similarly engages students from Howard and Morgan State universities.

Other collaborative efforts are demonstrated by California’s Claremont Colleges, and the Five Colleges, Inc. of Massachusetts. At Claremont, three colleges, in the consortium of five undergraduate and two graduate institutions which operate a central department providing shared services, have created a joint science program — with shared study and research facilities — that enables each to offer a strong, flexible, innovative natural sciences program. Students, also, may supplement their science majors by taking courses offered at the other consortium schools. The intercollegiate arrangement allows each to provide the individualized academic attention of a small college and the science resources of a major university.

In Massachusetts, Amherst, Hampshire, Mount Holyoke, and Smith colleges, and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, collaborate — encouraging cross-registration to expand options, and to offer students the widest selection of courses and opportunities.

Some liberal arts colleges have expanded under their own umbrellas, broadening the definition of a liberal arts education. Smith College, building on students’ natural interests, began its Picker Engineering program in 2000 — receiving ABET accreditation in 2005 — the first engineering program at a women’s college. Smith’s Picker Program recognizes that engineers must appreciate and understand the human condition to apply, effectively, the principles of mathematics and science in the service of humanity. In doing so, the Picker Program performs a double service. First, it helps to heal an artificial rift that no longer pertains, and second, it is helping to prepare new generations of women to participate fully in the economy of the future.

Such initiatives are important because the combination of engineering and the liberal arts reflects an evolution on what I call the “blending” of the sciences. The sciences, today, remain discipline-based, yet are in the process of evolving from separate, discrete entities, into cooperative disciplines, utilizing the unique attributes of each for mutual advancement and progress. In fact, in key arenas such as the life sciences and biotechnology, there is a keen awareness that progress in understanding disease formation, progression, transmission, and treatment, as well as further understanding of the fundamentals of living systems — indeed what “living” means — require understanding, for example, gene expression in disease, protein interactions, etc. This will depend upon the application of engineering, the physical sciences and information technology, and the liberal arts, to the life sciences. In other words, interdisciplinarity will rule the day. This requires creating inter- and multi-disciplinary experiences for students to learn in team environments, to parallel what they will face in real-life technological situations.

We have been doing this at Rensselaer through technology-enabled interactive learning in studio classrooms, and through our multidisciplinary design laboratory, where students work on real-life engineering problems in maximally technology-enabled teams. They, also, work on joint problems with teams in industry over the Internet. In addition, they are able to design and build prototypes of certain technologies, and to scale them up. These team approaches work well for all our students, especially our women students, by making them part of — not only multidisciplinary teams — but multicultural teams.

But we know that, even as strong as Rensselaer is in engineering and science, we need to further evolve as an engineering and science-based university. That is why, at Rensselaer, we have built the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, which sits at the nexus of art, science, engineering, and technology. As both a cultural center and a research platform, it will widen the campus outlook, creating for our students a broader, richer sense of the world and its possibilities. Rensselaer is using EMPAC to foster a renaissance at Rensselaer — synthesizing art and technology, embodying the qualities of the great artist Leonardo Da Vinci — inquiry, imagination, scientific and technological rigor, vision, and creativity. As you know, Da Vinci painted and sculpted some of the world’s greatest art treasures, and designed machines for human flight. He called himself simply an “engineer,” because — in engineering — his intellectual abilities found the broadest opportunities for their creative expression.

Our new EMPAC platform, and the opportunities and programs it already has fostered, will provide a blending of the sciences with our contemporary equivalent of the seven original liberal arts. Trivium: grammar, logic, rhetoric; Quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. This, we believe, will prepare our graduates to lead, to communicate well, to think deeply, to plan well, and to discern ambiguity, and, we hope, to take the ethical view.


We meet at a time of uncertainty. We know that the global financial crisis is taking its toll on our endowments, and how that will play out, over what period of time, is unclear.

Uncertain, as well — especially for small, private colleges with tuition-driven budgets — is a possible dip in enrollment. How that will play out for next year’s entering classes is a question.

We do know that applications for financial aid are up.

We, also, know that more students are considering less-expensive state universities — ironically, at a time when many states are trimming higher education funding. We know that some students are delaying going to college altogether — at least for now. And, while many colleges have accepted more students under early decision plans, the degree to which students enroll in the Class of 2012 is far from certain.

Yet, despite the uncertainties, it is equally clear that a new “Sputnik moment” well may be at hand. I have only touched on sustainable energy security — a topic in which I am deeply involved, and one that I address regularly. The growing awareness of, and concern for, climate change, the call for new and sustainable energy sources, for better photovoltaics and wind generation, for energy-conserving light-emitting diodes (LEDs), for bio-fuels that do not impact global food sources, for the revival of nuclear energy — all of these concerns and interests may be this generation’s “Sputnik moment” that generates among young people new interest in pursuing advanced degrees and careers in science.

It may be a “Sputnik moment” for independent colleges, as well. By emphasizing your strengths, by galvanizing and focusing resources, by collaborating, by risking new things — even at a time of uncertainty, by laying out your value proposition, by meeting students where they are, by investing in your science programs, I believe that the independent college sector will emerge from this difficult period stronger than ever before, and will continue to provide the intellectual and pedagogical diversity that is unique to American higher education, and that has been its strength.

If we, as a nation, are to invest more in science itself, in STEM research, and in science education to address our greatest challenges, then it behooves us to recognize, applaud, sustain, and encourage the outsized contribution that independent colleges make to advanced science education.

We need you.

Thank you.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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