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Friday, September 04, 2009

Education vs Job Training

There's always been a healthy debate about the role of an undergraduate education. Some view it as primarily a way of preparing for a job after graduation. At most universities we have undergraduate programs that do just that—engineering, and management studies are prime examples.

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.

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.
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.

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?


  1. I don't think that education and job training are opposite goals anyway... I remember from my undergrad that learning to do a PCR was far easier after learning the basic chemistry concepts, and that undergrads with the basic knowledge of a discipline tend to pick up lab skills easier. Of course, it works in the other direction too, at least for ecology. It's hard to gain a real understanding of ecological concepts without experiencing the amount of variation and diversity you see in a community first hand, through field trips and sampling.

    That being said, I think a arts and science program should focus on the basic knowledge and learning how to learn. Labs and practicums should be develop to enhance that. If you have the basics, you can always pick up the applied skills on the job, and you have to flexibility to choose from a lot of options.

  2. The applied skills are the ones you get on-the-job after graduation. There's simply too much diversity in potential jobs and job skills to even attempt to address them in a university class.

    Thinking in terms of biology degrees are for lab techs is thinking far too narrowly about biology as it is practiced by people today. The sheer variety of jobs for which a person with a B.Sc. in biology is ready for is staggeringly vast.

    I fully agree with Dr. Moran's point that an undergraduate degree is about teaching studings how to think, and what the process of science looks like (in the case of science degrees).

  3. I agree with Eric that education and job training need not be opposite goals. However, I think that it would help everyone if we were more restrictive in terms of awarding degrees to people who have actually learned useful skills, period. It's unbelievable that people can obtain an undergraduate degree without being able to write a complex sentence in order to save their lives. I've also seen many people pass their honors research projects despite having rarely shown up and having not produced any data. Sure, they don't get great marks, and a letter of recommendation is out of the question, but that hasn't stopped the job market from being flooded with BAs and BScs. I don't think that some people realize how many folks working at call centers or restaurants have degrees that they don't need in order to hold their position.

    At the expense of sounding like a radical conservative, I don't think that this would be an issue if we weren't awarding so many more degrees than the market requires. I guess everyone just goes to university because it's the next logical step. I'll also admit that I have no solutions for any of these issues either.

  4. 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.

    LOL. Yeah, that's right. Spend four years learning how life works and how it evolved and then go onto flipping hamburgers. 'Cause, you know, just about everything else requires specialized education. (And rightly so, for many reasons!).

    What you are describing is only possible for vast minority of population who happen to have no any need to actually earn any money.

    And another thought: Don't forget that there is huge distance between wanting to learn how life works and how it evolved and being capable of learning how life works and how it evolved.

  5. True Story.

    At a certain university, economic geology students received a broad background in geological exploration techniques. After graduation, students would be employed by mining companies who would provide more intensive training on exploration techniques they were particularly interested in. After about 18 months to 2 years these people would often swap companies and the process would start again.

    The companies eventually decided that this was a waste (even though it was a swings and roundabouts thing between the companies) and started demanding that the university department start teaching the exploration methods they required, rather than they waste 18 months on the graduates who would them move. There was one technique that was in vogue at the time and a number of companies pressured the uni department to focus on it in the next teaching year, so they didn't have to. 'The graduates would be much more able to gain empoyment' they said. The Uni department decline.

    Nine months later, the technique fell out of favour and was dropped by the companies.

    Had the uni department acquiesced to the interests of the companies, they would have produced graduates who's main skill was no longer required by companies.

  6. Nine months later, the technique fell out of favour and was dropped by the companies.

    Had the uni department acquiesced to the interests of the companies, they would have produced graduates who's main skill was no longer required by companies.

    If someone's idea of a decent education is spending 4-5 years learning any one of the specific techniques, then it's bullshit. But, I'd think, it is 100% obvious to 100% of everyone involved that this is NOT education. So this story, however true, sounds like a straw man to me.

    Personally, I am sick and tired of students that come to graduate school with typically next to zero knowledge of things that are essential for doing the work they are supposed to do.

    And I am NOT talking about specific techniques (although an ability to pipet properly when your major is biochemistry would help)! A monkey can be trained to pour a gel and a hamster can be trained to mix up PCR. That's not the point. The point is that they lack a lot of very basic knowledge that allows them to critically evaluate how they are using their "protocols" and "kits", adapt them optimally to the task at hands and troubleshoot when things don't go the way expected. And this failure to see inside the perceeved black box only autocatalytically reinforces their reliance on kits and mindless approaches.

    The end result is pretty ironic: too many kids who in their undergrad studies were supposed to learn how to think, in later years end up being convinced that every day science is about following procedures and accomplishing things - with little or no thinking involved.

    This, I feel, is ultimately connected to another plague: most of today's biologists are out not to test/disprove a hypothesis - no, rather, they are out to "prove a model". The distinction is critical!

  7. My school's Biology program offers a diverse range of elective courses that students can "mix and match" for their own career goals. In this way, students planning on working in industry or in labs tend to focus on the more practically minded food science or lab methodology type courses, "pre-med" students tend to focus on medical microbiology and physiology courses, and students interested in graduate school tend to focus more on things like biochemistry and genomics. Granted, all students are forced to take the same basic coursework together (and rightfully so), but I don't see what's wrong with allowing students a little bit of freedom within the context of a liberal arts education.

    I also take issue with the view that computers are some sort of exclusively pragmatic skill that only lab techs need. I think a lot of computer science courses (programming, etc...) can teach critical thinking skills that a lot of students lack. Even if you only value computers as a practical tool, computer literacy is as essential to a 21st century education as writing has been for the past several hundred years.

  8. People are kinda missing the point. Sandra wasn't talking about what you actually teach or whether certain students can think, she was addressing the fact their can be different motivations based on circumstances for why students pick certain majors. Those coming from poverty are concerned about salaries after college. They don't want to be poor anymore nor do they want to raise their kids in poverty. Pointing out the options one has along with all those wonderful critical thinking skills (heck that is a great advantage in the job market itself) is about reaching out to under-represented populations.

  9. This is the current situation:

    We have a large number of people who don't want to have anything to do with education, much less thinking and they only go to school because they're required to do so.

    Of the others, the vast majority does the following:

    1) go to school so that you can get into college.
    2) go to college so that you can:
    A) get a job
    B) get into law/med/graduate school
    3) if B, go to those so that you can get a job

    At none of these steps is actually learning something a goal, and not surprisingly, it isn't accomplished. Learning how to think isn't even in the curriculum (how many universities require their science students to take a class on philosophy of science?)

    It should be obvious that this is pure anti-intellectualism and we have built our society around it.
    However, because obvious things tend to be very often missed by people who do not think, this simple fact is not at all understood.

    Anyway, a basic question that never gets asked: why do we need jobs to begin with? So that billions of people can spend their lives waking up every morning, doing something they hate for the rest of the day and then come back home, use an obscene amount of non-renewable resource and wreck the planet, and generate offspring that's sentenced to spending their lives the same way.

    What's the point of that? Is this a meaningful way of living your life? Is this a sustainable way to built a society and how long can it last?

    Those are big questions, and how we view the role of knowledge and the way of producing it is of utmost importance

  10. There should definitely be at least a little bit of "job training" involved. McGill has a great molecular bio lab that teaches all the major molecular techniques (the ones that aren't likely to go away any time soon--like PCR, BLAST, etc). It was a good primer for later research projects.

    If programs don't have experiences like that, then it puts the onus on PI's to train all their new recruits in every technique. I think that's putting an unnecessary burden on researchers.

  11. There should definitely be at least a little bit of "job training" involved. McGill has a great molecular bio lab that teaches all the major molecular techniques (the ones that aren't likely to go away any time soon--like PCR, BLAST, etc). It was a good primer for later research projects.

    These are trivial things that shouldn't even be mentioned in th discussion. Of course you need to know how to do PCR, but this is something so simple and basic that it should go without saying. And it shouldn't never be a goal of an educational program on its own.

    The question is one about the general philosophy of your typical university curriculum and the attitude of students entering college

  12. The whole argument about education is based on a horribly flawed premise - that the undergraduate science curriculum actually educates its students. As a life science student who has managed A+s often solely by rote memorization (and not to the extent of shutting myself into Robarts Library as a hermit) I have to strongly disagree. The vast majority of my life sciences courses have only taught me details to memorize, which I promptly forget after the exam, meaning that after all the biology and biochemistry courses I've taken I felt I have learned little more than the occasional trivial detail, for example about how many amino acids an alpha helix has in each turn.

    The only science courses in my curriculum (here at U of T) that actually educated me are i) my physics and math courses, because the problem-solving and proof-oriented approach taught me to think analytically, to a degree where I often found flaws in my biochem / biology instructors' use of chemical and other mathy calculations in their lectures; ii) my chemistry courses, because of professors who emphasized the physical aspects of chemistry; and iii) my BIO150 (evolutionary and ecological bio) instructor, who along with the BIO150 teaching team activately integrated into the lecture content a sense of how science connects to real-world problems and how proper (versus improper, Mythbuster-style) science is done.

  13. That means that you were not in a good life science program. I personally had the good fortune to have almost all my biology classes exams consisting entirely of problem solving and how-you-think-like-a-scientist type of questions

    But apparently this isn't the case everywhere

  14. (Continued from the above)

    The true purpose of a science curriculum should be encapsulated by the following quote whose author I forgot and who I am merely paraphtasing: "education is whatever leftover after you have forgotten everything in the course."

    With that in mind, I would argue that to educate its students undergraduate life science should take a problem-solving approach, emphasizing less on memorizing little details (instead those can be provided on an aid sheet during an exam, say). I often wonder why many courses that use Albert et al's Molecular Biology of the Cell don't even bother with the excellent Problems Book that comes along with it.

    Perhaps a reflection of the fact that the undergrad life science curriculum often is an exercise of pedantry. I have expected far more coming out of high school, which is why now I have switched from biochemistry to a physical science, pure chemistry. I am still passionate about biochemistry, I still do undergrad research related to biochem, but as an ordinary student I just don't see how I am being educated about anything from an undergrad biochem curriculum.

  15. Georgi, I think you are right. So it is also a reflection on the fact that life science education is very vulnerable to being reduced to the level of rote memorization, even though it has the potential to involve just as much problem-solving, as say, a well-taught organic chemistry course.

    - Anonymous

  16. Actually life science has the most potential to teach you how to think like a scientist because it is the area of science where you have the least control over your experimental system (OK, Earth and Atmospheric is even worse, but it is not so popular). And when you have little control over your experimental system, extraordinary caution is required when setting up experiments and interpreting them. In other words, the epistemology of what you do is nowhere more important than it is in life science, and since we have a fundamental problem with most people's poor epistemological choices, a proper life science education could help

    But it takes a lot of effort and commitment from the teachers to do that, and it is rarely there

  17. “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; …”

    Let’s have a brief glimpse into the past and remember the SSHRC fiasco in 2006 where arts education seems to have spectacularly failed to provide any ability of how to think. The good ol' boys & girls of the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) denied Dr. Brian Alters (McGill) funding to study "… the detrimental effects of popularizing anti-evolution's intelligent design theory on Canadian students, teachers, parents, administrators and policymakers."
    Not getting funding for a proposal is not unusual, but the galling part of the rejection included the following gratuitous, scientifically illiterate comment:
    “Nor did the committee consider that there was adequate justification for the assumption in the proposal that the theory of Evolution, and not Intelligent Design Theory, was correct. . . .” [?!?!?!?!?!]

    So it is painfully obvious that many of those higher up in the SSHRC food chain (presumably all or most with a PhD or two) have serious critical thinking problems. Does this demonstrate a major deficiency in social science/humanities education, basic scientific illiteracy, blind devotion to their useless and irrelevant god (relativism), or some combination of several or all of the above? For icing on the cake, they refused to admit what an extremely stupid statement that was, in spite of the huge amount of valid criticism they received. Scientifically illiterate lefties playing directly into the hands of scientifically illiterate right-wing creationists. How wonderful!

    I think this quote is from Gary Bauslaugh (but I have been unable to track down the exact source): "... this large public agency is in thrall to certain trendy ideas in the social sciences and humanities. There clearly is a large postmodernist contingent in those circles in Canada, as in the United States, which holds that science is an ideology no better and probably worse than other ways of knowing."
    The sorry SSHRC affair is detailed in several issues of the magazine Humanist Perspectives

    SSHRC — We Have a Problem by Gary Bauslaugh. Humanist Perspectives, Issue 157.

  18. Chris makes an excellent point. The idea that, given the rapid pace of technological change, one could train for a specific job in college--as opposed to receiving an actual education--and have that specific job upon graduation is a fiction rooted in an earlier, more stable time. The current cohort of undergraduates will take jobs upon graduation, 4-5 years from now, that have not been invented yet.

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