March 18- 31, 2005
Vol. 35, Issue 5
Back Issues
Employees flock to educational benefits fair
Governor taps three new members, re-appoints Farrell
Robbins wins Luce
Frischer puts reality into the humanities — virtually
Exploring ways to improve rural health
Students expected to wrestle with ethical development during undergrad years
Tai's study traces transition from student to scientist
Amalgam highlights graduate research
Payslips now only a click away
Museum acquires Hester Bateman silver
Office there to support survivors
Novelist of 'The Hours' to speak on March 22
Indian nations summit travels from Virginia Tech to U.Va. for new collaboration
Talujon percussion quartet to perform March 25
Embracing the 'Useful Sciences'


Tai’s study traces transition from student to scientist

Robert Tai
Peggy Harrison

Robert Tai

By Anne Bromley

A Curry School professor is tracking how a student makes the shift from being a consumer of knowledge to being a producer of knowledge — such as an independent researcher who might win a Nobel prize — thanks to a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Amid growing concern that too few American students are pursuing science careers, Robert H. Tai, assistant professor of science education, wants to figure out how a science student learns to work on the edge of human understanding and cross the brink of discovery. He will use the NSF grant to tap the minds of award-winning, active scientists and science novices to gather data on what steps or experiences make up this critical transition period. The study, called “Project Crossover,” could lead to improvements in the teaching of science at earlier grades, as well as in the research training of scientists at the doctoral level.

A report last year by the National Science Board found that the falling number of undergraduates receiving science degrees has put the United States at 17th in the world — 30 years ago it was No. 3. Analysis from the NSF, also published last year, voiced alarm that U.S. researchers are publishing fewer scientific papers in the top journals and producing fewer patents.

Gilmer Lab
U.Va. file photo/Andrew Shurtleff

Dudley Herschbach, a research professor at Harvard who won the Nobel Prize in 1986, is one of the project advisers. He noted that because a large investment of resources goes into educating each Ph.D. in science, the study could have great impact.

From his review of literature across disciplines, Tai said there is a presumption that the change from science student to scientist has to take place, but there is a gap in formal documentation on exactly what makes it happen. Some common elements have emerged: research independence, a supportive intellectual climate, a positive student-adviser relationship, development of scientific reasoning and laboratory skills, scientific passion, programmatic issues (involving course work, qualifying exams and others) and national science policy.

“The transition from student to scientist marks the last formal step in scientific education,” Tai said.

Combining information gathered from interviews with quantitative research, Tai and colleague Xitao Fan, also a Curry School professor, will design a Web-based survey to distribute nationally to 1,500 scientists and 3,000 graduate students in chemistry or physics.

Tai began interviewing scientists last year in a pilot study and has received a lot of interest and support, especially from Ian Harrison, who chairs U.Va.’s chemistry department. Tai will use this research in developing questions for a broader survey. It will cover topics such as prior science education and laboratory experiences, current teaching approaches among faculty advisers and criteria used to determine when a doctoral student has reached the level of research independence.

Key to their scientific education is the mentoring relationship with faculty advisers, Tai said.

Roseanne Ford, associate vice president for research and graduate studies, agreed that the faculty adviser is crucial in a future scientist’s experience. Students often choose a graduate school based on faculty whose research they know. But there is little other criteria for considering how to maximize the mentoring relationship.

“We don’t really pay attention to the match with professors and students,” Ford said. And yet top research institutions are competing for the best students who might become leaders in science one day. “Anything the study finds will be helpful,” she said.

Tai said he expects that issues concerning the scarcity of women and minorities in the sciences will emerge. He will collect data from a diverse group, but intends to conduct a separate study in the future with the groundwork laid from this current one.

A former high school physics teacher, Tai joined the Curry School in 2001, and also has researched connections between high school science teaching and students’ later success in college science courses.


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