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University Of Virginia Study Traces Transition From Student To Scientist

March 9, 2005 --

A University of Virginia 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 or patent a new vaccine — thanks to a  $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Amid growing concern that too few American students are pursuing science careers and the nation is losing its dominance in this area, Robert H. Tai, assistant professor of science education at U.Va.’s Curry School of 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 on the path of the science profession. 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. Plus, fewer international students are coming to study in the United States since visa regulations have been tightened, and more foreign researchers are returning to their countries. 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, which signal innovation.

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

From his review of relevant literature across several disciplines, Tai has found that 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 that seem to be part of the training and experiences of scientists 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 interviewswith state-of-the-art quantitative research methods, Tai and colleague Xitao Fan, also a Curry School professor, will design and analyze 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 for the study, especially from U.Va.’s Ian Harrison, who heads the chemistry department. Tai will use this research in developing questions for the 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, U.Va. 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 spelled out for considering how to maximize the learning benefits in 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.

“With the burgeoning importance of science in our society, it would appear that a better understanding of the schooling of new scientists would help to inform decision-making regarding research training policy, as well as improving access for the next generation of potential scientists,” Tai said.

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

Contact: Anne Bromley, (434) 924-6861

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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