Statement on Education - Journal of Chemical Education (ACS

Statement on Education. Attila E. Pavlath. Western Regional Research Center of USDA, 800 Buchanan, Albany, CA 94710. J. Chem. Educ. , 1999, 76 (9), ...
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Chemical Education Today

ACS Presidential Election

Statement on Education by Attila Pavlath Who Am I? •

A chemist with a half-century career in academic, industrial, and government research (see more detail on A parent who raised two children from kindergarten through Ph.D. to successful careers in the physical sciences. A concerned ACS member who worked for 30 years to make the ACS a better place equally for everyone from the youngest student of chemistry to the most respected Nobel laureate by addressing the challenges of our profession with perseverance.

paring them for the real world as effectively as they should be. Is There a Solution? I am a realist. For serious problems, there is no easy solution. However, we can make progress if we are not discouraged by the initial problems of developing joint understanding and unified actions. We must have the patience and perseverance to develop a course of action that will provide the greatest benefits both to us and to those who come after us. The following can lead us toward steady improvement:

Today, a Key Challenge Is Science Education

The launching of Sputnik made us realize the shortcomings of our educational system. Everyone knew action had to be taken, but there was no consensus on what should be done. Today, there is also a need to address our educational challenges, but we also have no consensus as to solutions. Many high-school graduates can not handle even the 3R’s; therefore it is not surprising that their science education is inadequate. No wonder that sensationalist headlines about the various “evil effects of science” find receptive ears. Understanding of science and technology should be a basic requirement whether a student is preparing for a medical, legal, or political career. Yet, few colleges make such courses a requirement for graduation in nonscientific majors. Even graduate schools have difficulties in providing adequate preparation for a career in industry—where most of the jobs are available.

What Are the Causes? There is more than one reason for inadequate science education. While some of the reasons are highly political and cannot be remedied by the scientific community alone, that should not hold us back. Remember the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz who became suddenly smart when a diploma was bestowed on him? In high school the sole requirement to teach science is a teaching certificate, and this certificate does not guarantee the knowledge of science. An additional challenge is that under the conditions where courses in basket weaving and science may have equal weight to fulfill graduation requirements, we can not expect graduates to have an understanding and respect for the importance of science in the everyday life. Teaching at the higher educational institutions also has its problems, and we do not always admit their real cause. Many years ago, the main responsibility of a college professor was to teach, but the “publish or perish” criteria shifted the emphasis. At some institutions, teaching is frequently delegated to teaching assistants. Also, the competition for grants and the pressure to publish tend to narrow the research area, resulting in graduates expert in limited areas, not pre1174

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Science teaching credentials in high schools developed by colleges and scientific organizations, Scientific societies educating legislators at state and federal levels as to the need for such credentials, Recognition of the importance of excellence in teaching and making it an important factor in securing tenure at our educational institutions, Interaction between Academe and Industry to develop curricula beneficial for careers in both places, and Lifetime opportunity for continuing education by creating ways that mid-career persons can keep up with new developments without major hardship.

The Role of the ACS The scientific community is segmented into fractions with differing backgrounds, goals, and modus operandi. Groups with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo are unwilling to modify their existing status; yet we must be concerned with the consequences that affect us as a nation. The ACS can and must act as a neutral mediator by taking the leadership role in bringing the factions together and working on mutually beneficial solutions. The cynic and the pessimist might dismiss this as an unrealistic expectation. The hard-core independents will argue that noninterference is the best solution. I do not believe this. With centuries of warring in Europe, only elaborate planning was able to bring the increasingly unified states together. They realized that those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. If politicians can work together, we as rational scientists, educators, and legislators should be able to bridge the gaps and find solutions before the problems reach catastrophic levels. During my long involvement in ACS activities I have always advocated cooperation. If elected as president, I do not offer pie-in-the-sky solutions, but I will put the prestige of the office behind improved education at all levels. After all, we are all in this together. Attila E. Pavlath is a Lead Scientist at the Western Regional Research Center of USDA, 800 Buchanan, Albany CA 94710; email: [email protected]; WWW:

Journal of Chemical Education • Vol. 76 No. 9 September 1999 •