Thursday, June 23, 2011

Arsenic and Scientific Controversy

The June 3 issue of Science contained a research article written by a NASA astrobiologist fellow, Felisa Wolfe-Simon, and her colleagues titled “A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus.” The manuscript reports on research in which the bacterium GFAJ-1 was grown in an environment low in phosphorous and high in arsenic, traditionally considered a toxic and unstable metal. The authors hypothesize that not only does the bacterium tolerate arsenic, but it thrives in the environment, replacing some of the phosphorous normally used to manufacture biomolecules such as DNA, with arsenic. Steven Benner, an astrobiologist at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Gainesville, Florida stated that if the authors’ hypothesis proves true, it would “set aside nearly a century of chemical data concerning arsenate and phosphate molecules.”

While the findings of the research are significant, even more remarkable is the discussion and debate that began after the article was first published online by Science on 2 December 2010. By the time of its print publication in the June 3 issue, the manuscript had spawned a record eight Technical Comment articles that were published in the same issue, and a Response to the Technical Comments by the lead author Wolfe-Simon. Several of the Technical Comments questioned whether the DNA was simply contaminated with arsenic instead of having incorporated it into its genome. Others questioned whether arsenate compounds would be stable enough to be utilized in the bacterium’s DNA. In her response, Wolfe-Simon provides further explanation of their work and interpretations. But the controversy over the hypothesis will take much longer to play out. Bruce Alberts, Science’s editor-in-chief, remarked in a note introducing the Technical Comments that “The discussion published … is only a step in a much longer process.” That process will likely involve further research, additional publications, and continued debate until a preponderance of evidence eventually supports or disputes the hypothesis put forth. The research stimulated by scientific controversy is not only a healthy aspect of scientific discourse, it is, in many ways, essential to the process of science as we know it. As we wait for this particular controversy to play out, you can read more about the role that controversy plays in scientific discovery in our website module Scientific Controversy.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

What's the value of higher education?

There have been a number of articles recently discussing the "value" of a college education (such as this one in the New Yorker) . In other words, given the cost in time and money, is it a good investment to make? Traditional wisdom, with research to support it, is that people with college degrees earn significantly more over a lifetime than those with only a high school diploma, so that even discounting the intangible benefits of higher education, it's still a good investment. So what is driving these new discussions?

The first is that many recent college graduates are struggling to find jobs in the current job market. The unemployment rate in the 20-24 year old age group is 15%, nearly 6% higher than the overall population. Even those with college degrees are struggling, and it's as bad as it's been since 1970.

The second is that the cost of a traditional four-year private University is now around $50k a year (tuition + lodging). Nearly a quarter of a million dollars is a lot of money, especially with the prospect of no job or a low paying job waiting for you when you graduate. With more students graduating with heavy debt burdens, the need to find a job is even more pressing.

The third is the rapid change in skillsets in demand in the workforce. In the technology world for example, four years is a very long time and skills that might have seemed important then are far less relevant now. Consider that the iPhone was introduced just four years ago, and the app store three years ago. Are colleges properly preparing students for the jobs that are actually out there? Do they adjust fast enough to stay relevant?

Finally, there is a large amount of education material available online now, from Visionlearning to OpenCourseWare and Kahn Academy. Why spend money living in an expensive area and taking classes from well paid professors when can you do it all online for free or cheap?

These are interesting discussions to have, but I feel it's important to remember one thing: higher education isn't so much about the actual content that you cover but about how you go about learning it. By physically placing students together in groups (e.g. a class) and working on difficult problems over the course of a semester, they learn skills that are useful in just about any job. The real value of the education is not in the course material but in the process of attainment.

It still would be nice to find a job though, wouldn't it?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Another editorial about teaching the process of science

There have been a lot of editorials in Science and other venues over the past couple of years, calling for more teaching of the process of science. The latest is in the most recent issues of Science, entitled Measuring Student Development, and written by David J. Asai, the director of Precollege and Undergraduate Science Education Programs at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Asai says, "An effective program should enable students to demonstrate an understanding of the process of science, regardless of their academic discipline."

I completely agree. In developing materials for Visionlearning about the process of science, we found it to be very difficult to assess our students' understanding in a single course - it simply does not provide enough time to see change. Asai's suggestion to approach this at a programmatic level reflects the complexity and nuance involved in understanding the process of science, and that it requires building skills over time, as should be the case in an undergraduate program.

Not that assessment at the programmatic level is any easier, but it will undoubtedly produce interesting results that can inform how we integrate the process of science into our teaching.