Carnegie Mellon University
A 21st-Century Science Education

A 21st-Century Science Education

by Amy Pavlak Laird

Articles in a recent issue of Nature examined what it will take to train the next generation of successful scientists. The conclusion? Definitely a deep knowledge of a discipline and mastery of the scientific method. “But there are other key requirements, such as the ability to think critically and solve problems creatively and collaboratively. Communication skills are a must, and mastery of modern technology helps.”

Preparing Students to be 21st-century Scientists

The new holistic, outcome-driven MCS Core Education fosters the growth of MCS students in four dimensions:

diagram of scholar, professional, citizen, person

In 2010, a committee of more than 20 Mellon College of Science faculty members came together to re-evaluate the MCS curriculum and they came to a similar conclusion: a multi-dimensional undergraduate experience is key to success as a 21st-century scientist. The committee reported its findings to MCS Dean Fred Gilman, who decided it was time to develop a new MCS core education. His charge was to establish measurable competencies and experiences every future MCS student should have upon graduation, and then to identify specific changes to existing courses or to create new courses needed to meet these outcomes. This past fall, after five years of intensive effort, MCS launched the result: an innovative approach to science education that fosters student growth in four dimensions—scholar, professional, citizen, and person.

“The new MCS Core Education re-envisions science education through a holistic view of the entire set of educational outcomes for an undergraduate science student, and then builds up a curriculum that prepares our graduates to thrive in the 21st-century scientific and social world they will face and shape,” said Gilman.

Alumni Inspire the Heart of the Core

The MCS Core Education Committees looked especially to alumni for inspiration as they re-evaluated the curriculum. “When it came time to examine the core, we asked ourselves, ‘What kind of experiences did our most successful alumni have at CMU? What qualities did they possess? Can we have a core education plan that aspires to help all of our students develop those qualities and experiences?’ ” explained Eric Grotzinger, MCS associate dean for undergraduate affairs and teaching professor of biological sciences.

It turns out that alumni, especially those who are successful professionally and personally, all had very similar experiences while they were MCS undergraduates.

“We learned that they were often scholars who immersed themselves in authentic research experiences. They took part in experiential learning and internships. They explored the arts and humanities. They used their science knowledge to improve society, to give back. They had a sense of balance in their lives,” said Amy Burkert, vice provost for education and teaching professor of biological sciences.

And it’s not just anecdotal evidence from alumni that shows how important it is to be educated with this holistic mindset. Employers, graduate schools, medical schools and other professional programs want students with multi-dimensional qualities.

“Employers are looking for graduates who are really great technically but who are also prepared for the workplace of today and tomorrow,” pointed out Maggie Braun, director of MCS core education.

Burkert adds that this isn’t just what employers and graduate schools want. “There’s also a lot of data and research that shows high-impact practices like undergraduate research or service learning trips actually help students learn, be motivated and help them refine how their future may unfold.”

An ENGAGING Education

Thumbnail of core education pie chart

Click to view larger image of Features of the MCS Core Education

The hallmark of an MCS education—training students as scholars, involving them in research, having them go into depth in a major—isn’t changing. The required courses in the majors remain largely the same, but the requirements for technical courses outside of the majors have expanded, and to satisfy them students can choose among a broadened list of courses in engineering, computational biology and statistics, among others.

“Hopefully now that students have more options and get to choose more of what interests them, they will be taking courses that they are excited about, taking them earlier on, and potentially spurring interest in the different areas of MCS,” Braun noted.

The biggest change to the MCS core centers on the non-technical portion. There are several new courses that revolve around self-directed experiences that encourage students to broaden their knowledge of the arts, engage with their community and maintain a balanced life. The ENGAGE courses encourage students to take advantage of the rich environment that Carnegie Mellon and Pittsburgh offer. World-class drama productions, for example, are staged right in their backyard, but many students don’t take the time to see one.

“It’s not just about checking a box,” Braun said, “It’s helping them see that there’s so much richness they are leaving on the table if they don’t engage with the full college experience.”

A New Vision for Science Education

The new MCS core education experience is unlike anything else out there. Benchmarking did not identify a similar program with such a comprehensive approach. The new Core Education is grounded in research through work with the university’s Simon Initiative, which is leveraging learning science research to improve student outcomes. For example, MCS Core Education builds on the expertise of MCS faculty who have long been innovators in using technology-enhanced learning tools in the classroom and will systematically use assessment of educational outcomes for ongoing course development related to innovative approaches. One such innovation is the new first-year seminar, EUREKA! Discovery and Its Impact. The seminar was tailor-made for first-year students.

“MCS students come in excited about science. We’re going to give them the tools to build on that enthusiasm and open their minds to new possibilities,” Grotzinger said.

During the semester students hear from working scientists, including faculty and alumni, who delve into the details about what it’s like to live the life of a scientist. They talk with students about their research, how they got to where they are, and the challenges and joys they experience every day on the job. Students also learn from experts about topics like transitioning to college life, how we learn, and work/life balance.

The lecture portion of EUREKA! brings together the entire entering class of MCS students, giving students with varied scientific interests the chance to get to know each other and to work together on team projects focused on an interdisciplinary science-related concept. In the recitation portion of the seminar, students work closely with upper-class mentors, a concept that evolved from a student-initiated mentorship program. In the program’s earlier iteration, students signed up to be a mentor or a mentee, and they met weekly to discuss anything that was on their minds, from test-taking anxiety to whether or not to take a certain professor’s class. Now, the mentorship aspect is woven into the first-year seminar.

photo of Dean Fred Gilman with students

Mellon College of Science Dean Fred Gilman with first-year students.

“The overarching goals of the class are to get students thinking about things that will be useful not only over the next four years but also life-long, and to get them excited about being here and being a part of MCS,” said Braun, one of the seminar’s creators.

“We hope, by the end of the seminar, that we’ve created a lot more transparency about our vision for the whole of the educational experience that students are going to receive within the college,” said John Hannon, associate dean of student affairs and MCS director of integrative learning.

Stephanie Vereb, a senior biological sciences major, sees the value in what the core program will bring to an MCS education. As a TA for the EUREKA! seminar, she and her fellow TAs already have plenty of advice for first-year students, especially when it comes to the new core education program.

“We’ve been trying to stress to the first-years how lucky there are. They have no idea,” Vereb said. “I’m happy with my time here, and everything worked out for a reason. But the reality is that this [core program] would have been super cool to do.”