Monday, November 16, 2015

What is a "world class" undergraduate science education?

Most undergraduate science curricula are essentially what they were fifty years ago. Furthermore, in Australia they are very specialised. Due to internal university politics and funding pressures departments actually design programs to discourage students from taking courses in other departments. For example, in one university that loves to promote itself as "world class" chemistry majors are not required to take any courses in physics and mathematics. How can you even do basic physical chemistry with only high school maths and physics?

This specialisation is antiquated. Consider what science is like today. It is very multi-disciplinary. Furthermore, the vast majority of research, both pure and applied, involves biology or materials. Biology and medicine are becoming increasingly quantitative. Everything involves substantial use of computers and advanced instrumentation. Previously, I posted about one course every science undergraduate should take. But that is not enough, if you really want to be "world class".

Science students should get a solid basic foundation in physics, chemistry, biology, computing, statistics, and mathematics.

Consider also what type of jobs the majority of science graduates end up doing. These non-research jobs include high school teaching, engineering, industry, and computing. Again multi-disciplinarity is usually central.

There was a time when all Caltech students had to do a quantum mechanics course.
I recently visited the Indian Institute for Science Education and Research (IISER) at Pune. I was very impressed to see that all of their undergraduates do the same courses for the first two years (physics, chemistry, maths, biology) at the beginning of a 5 year BS/MS.  
To me this is "world class".

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