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The Changing Face of Science Education

A Q&A with Professor Jeffrey Bjorklund, Ph.D.

Jeffrey Bjorklund, Ph.D., professor of chemistry, has been helping oversee the design of the new Science Center, ensuring the building will meet the needs of students and faculty for generations to come. Here he discusses the changing nature of science education and its influence on the teaching and researching spaces in the facility.

Q. We know science is taught differently now than it was a few decades ago. How has that affected the day-to-day experience of students and faculty?
A. The most dramatic change has been a shift from talking about science and then performing a few illustrative examples in a lab, to actually doing science. Years ago, everyone knew what the outcome of an “experiment” should be. Now hands-on work is more open-ended and less canned. Many lab exercises model how science is conducted in the real world. We also integrate lectures and labs more fully today. And many courses adopt workshop formats with the lab and lecture occurring in the same space, at the same time.

Q.That seems a more effective way to learn. What caused the change?
A. It’s partly the result of pedagogical research, which shows that for most students, lectures are an inefficient way to learn. First-hand experience is much more effective. But the exponential growth in technology has also fueled the change. When we built Kroehler Science Center, science departments owned very little instrumentation. In the 1980s, computers became relatively cheap, and sophisticated instruments became smaller and more affordable. Put simply, we can do more with less.

Q.Have developments within disciplines also changed how we teach and learn?
A. Absolutely! There are science fields that didn’t exist when we built Kroehler—neuroscience, bioinformatics, proteonomics, metabolonomics and chemical microscopy, to name just a few. It’s interesting that these represent the intersections of scientific fields, areas where two or more disciplines are constantly learning from each other. That’s one reason the new Science Center is so important—the space will be designed to encourage sharing among all the sciences; we won’t separate chemistry, biology, physics and so on into silos.

Q.What else excites you about the new Science Center?
A. For one thing, the building will optimize health and safety advancements. Consider my field: chemistry. When I was younger, teaching labs didn’t use chemical safety hoods and the entire building could smell what was happening in the organic chemistry lab. Of course we’ve come a long way since then. The new building will reflect all the advancements we’ve adopted at Kroehler over the years. It will also incorporate the very latest advancements brought by “green” chemistry and the environmental awareness movement.

Another important benefit will be the abundant student research space. Fifty years ago, independent undergraduate research was virtually unheard of. Today, graduate schools and employers demand that students get plenty of experience working with modern instrumentation and solving problems in their own research. The new building will accommodate that type of work very well. In preparation, we met with representatives of Research Facilities Design to go over all of the design details for the research and teaching labs. We’re focused on the layout of each room—the configuration of student work stations, where instrumentation will be placed, how to configure the greenhouse. Of course all these things—innovative teaching, safety measures, student research—are already happening on campus. But we’ll be more effective in a space that’s specifically designed for the needs of our students and modern science.