Some of us think this is misguided. We think that the primary goal of a university education should be to teach students how to think. This is especially true in the arts and science programs; like a biology major, for example.
According to one view, a proper education in biology would focus on basic concepts with a view to teaching students how life works and how it evolved. Along the way, they would be exposed to critical thinking and scientific conflicts in order to learn how to think like a scientist. This approach emphasizes learning and thinking in the context of biology but it doesn't exclude lab exercises and other practical applications of biology. Those are secondary goals, not primary ones.
A good biology education should prepare students for graduate school, if that's what they want to do, but it should also produce scientifically literate citizens who may choose many other careers.
The other view would focus more attention on preparing students for a job in biology. In this case, a lot of the courses would emphasize practical aspects of biology such as how to prepare buffers and how to use computers. Graduates of such a program should be well-equipped to take a job as a lab technician as soon as they graduate.
Some of these issues were discussed at a recent conference sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (see, Conference Mobilizes Educators to Transform Undergraduate Biology Education).
The CEO of AAAS, Alan I. Leshner, made the following statement.
Leshner said the goal of undergraduate education should be to give students a "fundamental knowledge of what science is, and what it is not, along with some key concepts." He also cautioned the conference participants not to fall into the trap of shifting the goal toward developing a scientific workforce, but, rather, remaining concerned with science for all undergraduates.I agree with Leshner. We should not fall into the trap of turning a university education into a job training program.
Sandra Porter of Discovering Biology in a Digital World attended the conference. She takes issue with the statement by Leshner as quoted on the website. Read her blog at: How NOT to encourage diversity in the scientific community.
Sandra is especially upset with the idea that, "participants not to fall into the trap of shifting the goal toward developing a scientific workforce, but, rather, remaining concerned with science for all undergraduates." Here's how she puts in on her blog.
I know it's unfair to jump on one sentence, but after that point, all I could think about, is that the man must be completely clueless and out of touch with the reality of both the needs of students and the life science industry. Statements that imply that workforce doesn't matter and that biology educators should avoid "falling into the trap" also imply that biology is only for those wealthy students that won't need to find jobs after college.This seems way over the top to me. Of course a good biology education will expose students to lab skills and practical aspects of biology. That's not being questioned.
I have heard this from other college faculty before. Apparently you shouldn't consider a college education, and certainly, not an education in life science to be some kind of ticket to employment. SCIENCE (all of you fall down on your hands and knees, okay?) is only for those with independent means or those who plan to go to medical school.
I mean, it must be nice to just go to school and not be concerned about learning any sort of marketable skill. Unfortunately, while Leshner compliments college biology teachers for ignoring notions about job preparation, students are the ones who will pay the price. Even those who go on to graduate school, eventually have to learn bench skills.
It's a question of emphasis. The primary goal is to graduate scientifically literate students who understand critical thinking. At the very least, if they graduate from a biology program they should understand evolution and why nothing in biology makes sense except in its light. If they can prepare buffers and do a BLAST search then that's a bonus.
It's Sandra, not Leshner, who's promoting the idea of two kinds of student—those who can learn how to think and those who are only interested in going to university to get a job. Perhaps she's thinking mostly of education at a community college while Leshner and I are thinking about education at university?