Tag: college teaching
In the past few days I’ve experienced what every college professor relishes in – reconnection with former students. In some ways, seeing a student graduate is like letting my dog Chili off her lead – I never know if she’s going to go chase the bunnies or remain close by and be obedient. There’s been more than one occasion when freedom has meant chasing a cat, when it should have been all about sticking by me while we check the mail or get the newspaper.
I have been fortunate through the years to have great students and to enjoy living a portion of McMurry’s core values – that personal relationships are the catalyst for life. Those relationships begin as students come in as freshmen and we begin to learn about each other – about our families, the importance of faith in our lives, how to balance needs and wants, where education has and will lead us. I believe my students know me well, know my wife and sons, know that I really, really care about their success as students today and professionals of the future. Students at small colleges like McMurry probably have no clue that their faculty live vicariously through the lives of their students, and that we feel great pride and a sense of credit and accomplishment when our alums become successful. They take a piece of us with them and leave a piece of themselves behind when they have spent four years in our classes and offices. And when they then graduate and go off, I know I always worry that they will chase cats and rabbits and neglect to stay in touch.
I have seen the beginning and endpoint of that journey in the past week, starting with Student Preview on Saturday. Talking with prospective students and their parents is always enjoyable, as I emphasize the strength of our programs and more importantly the strength of our relationships with students. If those in attendance at Preview could only have a glimpse of the outcome of a McMurry education! I was reminded of that on Sunday, when Dr. Sharla Owens sent a friend request on Facebook from California where she practices and teaches emergency medicine. Our college-age sons were just little guys when our family drove down to Galveston for her graduation from UTMB. Then today, Dr. Chad Johnson, alumnus and physician in El Paso, contacted me to discuss a high schooler he knows who is interested in McMurry. Chad was my barometer on the quality of our science courses during his time at McMurry. Anytime I needed to know how we were doing, he was willing to answer truthfully. And yesterday I was privileged to spend an hour or so with Dr. Gena Jester Nichols, catching up on people and old times, and learning about her research on Adenoviruses and how her Wake Forest PhD has prepared her for her new job as a Research Scientist at Tulane.
Three different students, three different success stories of moving through the years from teacher-student to mentor-apprentice, and finally to friends and colleagues. It has been a very rewarding week for me because these three alums have chosen to reconnect with McMurry’s science faculty. May those who enter as freshmen next fall do likewise over the years to come.
Those of us who have taught for awhile have noticed a change in our typical students over the past few years. Their attention spans are shorter, their study skills are less polished, their course expectations are higher while their will to work is lower. This new reality has caused huge consternation among educators, who are inclined to write off these students as not being “cut out for science”.
We see this attitude in certain areas of academia, where a professor or department will summarily dismiss students as somehow unworthy of the field because of poor success in freshman level classes. One fellow dean shocked me at a meeting by stating that prestigious departments in his field pride themselves on high failure rates, where only the strong survive. [My response was that such departments must have horrible teachers, because the hallmark of good teaching is maximizing student success, not student failure.] These self-important faculty and programs see themselves as the guardians of knowledge who have to be appeased, setting themselves up as the judge and jury of every student coming through their doors. Only those like themselves are helped and encouraged; anyone else is “weeded out” as being unworthy of the call. Any extenuating circumstances, like adjustment to college and new expectations, adjustment to being away from the structure and support of their family and friends, an all the other joys and trappings of college life are ignored. If a student is not ready to succeed in their field right out of the chute, they just don’t have “the right stuff”.
Can we afford to write them off? Demographic after demographic shows that the US is losing its edge in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). As one nationally-known scientist once stated, “Sure most Nobel Prize winners are Americans, but they are European immigrants!” Our citizens are losing their interest in science, and our dependence on foreign science and technology places us in an unmentioned position of vulnerability. They are expecting our schools to “go light” on the science and focus on the social and athletic elements of a high school education. And our nation, as long as it gets cheap and bountiful access to the fruits of science and technology isn’t choosy about who provides it – our fellow citizens or emerging threats half a world away. American industry must outsource science and technology jobs or import professionals in those fields because supply from American colleges is not meeting demand. How did we get to this place? How can we afford to dismiss the current generation of students as “not cut out for science”? Are we really producing a generation of substandard students unable to “do” science? Those questions reflect presumed opinions posed by more than one pundit.
I have another opinion. Talk to the students and it is quite clear that they are plenty capable and as bright as their predecessors. I believe we’re at a critical point in science education where the straight line we instructors see as the way to success in teaching and learning science does not align with the rapidly-diverging arc the students are following. Something has to give if education is going to take place. Do we force them to straighten out the arc and be like us? Or do we learn to bend and so conform our teaching methods to better approximate their learning styles and expectations? Do we take advantage of their exceptional skills or do we ask them to abandon those to use archaic ones valued more highly in our day and age?
Unfortunately, students outnumber us and the cultural pressures driving the paradigm shift are not going way. Our students fail in science because we are failing them, and how we respond to the growing challenge will be vital to our success as a nation in educating our children in science and math.
Our response to this crisis is vital to our nation’s future, a matter of national security and concern. Stay tuned as I provide my opinion about the true source of the problem and a possible way out of this abyss.