Where have all the science graduates gone?

Scientific beakers

Columbia College to offer innovative online science classes

First in a series of stories about Columbia College innovations in the sciences and science teaching

The dearth of domestic science graduates has been setting off alarm bells in the Western world for decades. Industries in the United States, the Pacific Rim and Europe have declared the lack of qualified domestic science graduates a bona fide crisis in IT, the health sciences and physics, to name three examples this year alone.

According to an Auburn (Ala.) University report, only 750 physics doctorates were awarded to American students in a one-year period during the 1990s -- from a population base of over 248 million. Even institutions such as MIT are having difficulty attracting enough top American students to its graduate sciences programs, says the Auburn report.

Here in Missouri, demand for engineers, scientists and health care professionals will increase dramatically – by more than 30 percent in some specialties – by 2014, according to a 2006 report. And if Missouri’s educational institutions can't produce graduates to fill these positions, the jobs will be filled by skilled immigrants or depart Missouri altogether.

Enter Doctor Do-Wright

Dr. Peggy Wright, assistant professor of biology at Columbia College
Dr. Peggy Wright, assistant professor of biology at Columbia College, is doing her part to ensure this doesn't happen. In August 2009, Wright will be teaching an innovative science course both online and in-seat that involve hands-on benchwork. Online students must buy a kit containing a compact field microscope, basic glassware such as test tubes and beakers, dissection tools and a sheep's heart.

A what, Doctor?

"It's one of the course modules" to be used in August, said Wright. "Students will be dissecting a heart to learning about its different structures. These hearts are vacuum-sealed and in a preservative. You just open the package up and it's ready to use."

Wright says that President Gerald Brouder, Dr. Terry Smith, executive vice president and dean for academic affairs, and representatives from the Online Campus rolled out the idea of a hands-on, online science class in the fall of 2008. Wright says she was at first skeptical about the idea. But, she says, once it was clear the college wanted to pursue this option, she became totally committed to teaching the course.

Using a microscope is pivotal

Wright says she wanted to make any online science class experience as equivalent to what on-campus students would experience as possible. "Using a microscope, for example, is pivotal to science, and I didn’t want it all simulated on a computer. The idea is that a student will get to hold a microscope, hold a slide, learn how it works. You can probably find pictures of a sheep's heart online, but I wanted students to dissect it, hold it, not look at a computer simulation."

Wright says that she will start with only about 20 students per class, teaching one section the first session and expanding the curriculum and enrollment later.

Wright says that to her knowledge, the proposed science course is unique to the area.

Cost is a factor, too: lab fees and lab material can easily run close to $1000. Her lab packet, ordered from a firm specializing in lab kits for high schools, colleges and home schoolers, costs only $175. And the student will not be burning gas getting to campus or having to take precious time off from work.

Wright, who currently teaches general biology, human biology and environmental science, earned a PhD in fisheries and wildlife. "So I come to things like this from an environmental perspective," she says.

Her larger perspective also dovetails nicely with that of Columbia College: In late April, the college announced a $500,000 donation as the first gift to build a new science facility from Mary Agnes McQuinn, a 1954 graduate of the college, and her husband, Al McQuinn.

The culminating experience

Wright and the college's other teachers now cram their classes into Robnett-Spence Hall, which lacks adequate space and the basic infrastructure to add on modern science teaching tools. Wright, who also was on the proposed science building committee, says the new building will make all the difference in the worlds to a science major. "It will be the culminating experience" of the sciences at the college, she says.

Columbia College requires bachelor's degree candidates to take at least five hours of science. Of her unique online class, Wright says, "I hope this can capture some people into the field of science who would not normally consider a science course" – such as, say, a science-phobic art, English or history major.

As for the proposed building's glittering amenities, Wright quips she'd be happy with adequate storage space.


Anonymous said...

I think this is a wonderful idea for the working adult that has an interest in the field of science, but can't afford to leave his/her job to attend lab classes. I will be following this story closely as the success of this class may determine if a career in science is in my future.