Q&A with Dean of Faculty Muriel Poston
Skidmore College has launched an effort to strengthen its academic offerings and reputation in the sciences, capitalizing on its strong tradition in the liberal arts and in interdisciplinary study. In the following interview, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Biology Muriel Poston explains this new initiative and what the College hopes to accomplish.
Why is Skidmore making a concerted effort to boost the study of science at this time?
|Muriel Poston |
Historically, Skidmore has not emphasized the sciences to the same extent that it has other academic areas, particularly the arts and the humanities. With the arrival President Glotzbach  and the development of a new strategic plan, we recognized the need to rebalance the academic program to emphasize the sciences in a more intentional way. This initiative is concurrent with the need for our society to train students in the sciences, particularly at the undergraduate level. As a country, we lag behind many of our peers, both in Europe and Asia, in terms of undergraduate science education and student interest in the sciences. As indicated in "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," a report issued by the National Academies last year, if, as a country, we do not begin to emphasize the sciences, broadly defined, we will not continue to be the economic and intellectual leader we have been in the past. It is appropriate that Skidmore align itself with this kind of educational initiative now. What is the plan for the next ten years?
We've talked about what our science programs will look like in 2018 and the kind of academic program that will provide the best training for our students. We need to look at enhancing the foundation across all of the science majors and interdisciplinary programs, and then look at opportunities for intersection. We will need to restructure our curriculum to allow students to examine the interesting linkages between the various disciplinary sciences. We also need to enhance the infrastructure for the sciences. One of our immediate goals is to determine the renovation needs of the entire teaching space in the Chemistry Department and then to develop a plan for an addition to Dana Science Center. As we increase enrollment in science courses and grow the number of science majors, we will require more space for instruction and research, which means we will need the additional footprint associated with the expansion of Dana Science Center, as outlined in the Campus Plan for 2015. How will this affect Skidmore's academic environment?
As the Strategic Plan outlines, we hope to increase the number of science majors at Skidmore by 50 percent (to comprise 25 percent of the students with declared majors), without increasing the size of our student body. That, I think, will provide a very different profile of entering students—a cohort that will be coming in with an interest in science and a stronger science background, a trend we're already seeing. There will also be a significant cohort of science students looking to continue with a post-baccalaureate educational track including graduate school, professional school, or moving directly into the scientific workforce in some way.
We need to consider how to deliver the scientific literacy required by all our students. We want students to not only understand the scientific process but the fundamental concepts of science as well. Our current requirements, which focus on quantitative literacy and a laboratory science course, may need to be realigned. Right now a student can fulfill both requirements with a single course. Can we accomplish the kind of scientific understanding that a student needs in the 21st century in a single encounter? Can the study of science be distinctive at Skidmore?
I think Skidmore has a unique opportunity to explore the intersection of its traditional emphasis in arts and humanities with this new vibrant interest in science. This has been wonderfully illustrated in the "Molecules that Matter" exhibit currently in the Tang Teaching Museum. This is not the first exhibition in the Tang that has interrogated the nexus of science and art: "A Very Liquid Heaven" also demonstrated a cross disciplinary collaboration between colleagues from astronomy and art. Skidmore's faculty have cultivated this ability to reach across the disciplinary silos and model for students the ways in which collaboration and investigation of phenomena produce creative works and sound science.