by H. Stewart Hendrickson

During 1994-95 I was a visiting scientist and program director for Molecular Biophysics at the National Science Foundation. Faced with more excellent-ranked research proposals than my program budget could fund, I became aware of the difficult times felt by academic scientists. The limited opportunities for academic scientists, shrinking budgets for American colleges and universities, political pressure to reduce deficit spending by the federal government, and the changing nature of disciplinary science have led me to rethink the aims and objectives of science education, particularly at undergraduate colleges. I first articulated my ideas in an article published in the Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly (Hendrickson, 1995). Here, I expand on that article and add some additional thoughts.

It is obvious that our limited resources can no longer support an endless growth in science; higher education is becoming too expensive to sustain in its present form; and the nature of scientific research and the traditional scientific disciplines is changing in a fundamental way. It is time, I believe, to consider a new direction for science education at the undergraduate level -- the development of interdisciplinary science.

In the period since world war II, American science achieved tremendous growth and prestige. One of its prime architects was Vannevar Bush. In response to a request from President Roosevelt for a plan for science in a postwar economy, he referred to science as an "Endless Frontier" (Bush, 1945). He emphasized the importance of basic research, which he said "is performed without thought of practical ends. It results in general knowledge and an understanding of nature and its laws... It provides scientific capital -- the fund from which the practical applications of knowledge must be drawn." He proposed a social contract which, in return for federal support and relative autonomy, the researcher is "obligated to produce and share knowledge freely to benefit -- in mostly unspecified and long-term ways -- the public good." He said government should also promote science education and "the development of scientific talent in American youth."

This model served exceedingly well for several decades; however, the growth of science has now outstripped the resources necessary to support it. We have experienced exponential growth throughout this century. To cite an example in chemistry, Chemical Abstracts published its first million abstracts in 31 years from 1907 to 1937. The second million abstracts were published in only 18 years, and the most recent million abstracts in only 1.75 years. More articles on chemistry were published in the past 2 years than throughout history before 1900. While science has grown at an exponential rate, support for science in the past decade has leveled off, and has even declined in recent years. Like any organism faced with limited resources, science must prepare to enter a stationary phase with limited growth.

The research university evolved into its present form during the post-world war II years. Generous support of science, particularly basic research, has resulted in an increasing amount of information that must be processed, understood, and passed on to new generations of scientists. This has required new technologies, new ways of teaching, and increased specialization. As the body of knowledge has increased, fields of expertise have become ever more narrow and specialized.

No one university can support all specialized areas of science. While universities still support the traditional scientific disciplines, specialized scientists often need to go outside their own campuses to collaborate with other specialists. Universities have countered this, to some extent, by establishing interdisciplinary institutes and multidisciplinary centers.

Science departments at undergraduate colleges are necessarily small, have fewer resources, and are not able to sustain the degree of specialization seen at research universities. They have remained more narrow in their focus, concentrating on training students well in the narrow disciplines of science, primarily in preparation for graduate study at the research universities. Lliberal arts colleges pride themselves as the major undergraduate source of Ph.D. scientists. However, with an oversupply of such Ph.D. scientists, can we afford to continue in this direction? We should discover a new direction best suited to our resources in the context of modern science.

What is the nature of chemistry in the broad context of science at the end of the 20th century? Some have suggested that chemistry has lost its identity. John Maddox, the editor of Nature, said in a speech in Maastrict, The Netherlands, in 1988 (see Seebach, 1990, p. 1321): "Chemists have done wonders in losing their identity in the rest of science. Some might argue the point, but it is a fact that the Nobel committee awarded its 1985 chemistry prize to a pair of mathematicians... Meanwhile, the practice of what still passes for chemistry seems to have been largely preempted by outsiders. Truly, the science of chemistry has lost its identity."

The Swiss chemist, Dieter Seebach (1990), countered this view with his observation: "A more accurate diagnosis would focus on the fact that discrete boundaries no longer exist between the various natural sciences and especially between related subdisciplines. This has been the case for a long time in the world of applications, and it is just as true along the frontiers of research. Chemistry has not lost its identity: it has instead gained important footholds within the domains of other disciplines -- albeit rarely at the initiative of chemists." Dieter Seebach takes a broad view of chemistry, one that may not be accepted by all chemists, but is necessary if chemistry is to survive and flourish in this new era of science.

In an open letter to chemistry faculty, Edward Kostiner (1994), chairman of the American Chemical Society Committee on Economic and Professional Affairs, said "The overwhelming consensus is that universities provide first-class training in narrow fields of expertise, but that the general education of doctoral students does not adequately prepare them for entering the industrial and government work force. Another perception is that undergraduate chemistry majors are being prepared for graduate study and not for successful careers in industry. The current R&D marketplace requires people with a broad knowledge of chemistry and adequate exposure to related fields such as biology, materials science, chemical engineering, and physics. It seems to me that chemistry faculty have become too parochial in their approach to training students. We should attempt to provide all of our students the breadth of knowledge necessary for their success, especially those tools that not only broaden their scientific outlook, but also ensure their continued employability."

The most active and exciting research at the frontiers of science occurs today at the interfaces between disciplines. Scientific disciplines exist as convenient administrative tools, and persist most strongly in academia. Nature knows no such boundaries. Thus, narrow disciplines can often become a hindrance to scientific discovery and development. Many graduate universities have recognized this and have developed interdisciplinary institutes or programs.

Undergraduate liberal arts colleges have lagged behind in the development of interdisciplinary science. Most maintain strong disciplinary departments; this is particularly true in chemistry. They do a superb job of training students in narrow fields of expertise for graduate school and academic research, but fail to adequately prepare students for today's job market in interdisciplinary science and new interdisciplinary graduate programs. If they continue in this way, the number of science majors will decline as students become more aware of the limited opportunities in academic science and as the departments fail to excite students about the interdisciplinary frontiers of science and the many non-traditional alternative careers available in science.

In thinking about a new direction in undergraduate science education, we need to consider the needs of our students in this new era of science. We are all aware of the oversupply of Ph.D. scientists (Holden, 1995), particularly in academia. Clearly growth in this area has overrun resources. I realized this as a program director at NSF, when I had to turn down excellent new investigators for lack of funds. Many of these people will not make their careers at the research universities.

The Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy of the National Academy of Sciences (COSEPUP) issued a report (NAS, 1995) entitled "Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers." Their message was that if Ph.D.s broaden their training they will all be able to find jobs just as rewarding and prestigious as research. Others feel the report understates the severity of the problem and is too modest in its recommendations. In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Basic Research last summer, Mark Wrighton (1995), the Chancellor of Washington University, said "It is my view that the U.S. cannot have too many highly educated citizens. Science and technology leadership is vital to the future of the nation, and highly educated people in large numbers will be needed to sustain U.S. industry... The paramount concern, therefore, is not how many Ph.D.s are being produced, but the quality and character of the graduate experience they receive." The consensus is, however, that we need to reduce, or at least stabilize the number of Ph.D.s we are producing. One trend is the development of marketable master's degree programs.

Professor Lee Hood (NSF, 1995) speaks of the need for interdisciplinary science education, "not only at the graduate level, but also at the undergraduate and K-12 levels." His new graduate program in Molecular Biotechnology at the University of Washington is a good example at the graduate level, and he has begun an innovative program in science education at the K-12 level in the Seattle area.

Instead of boasting of our role in the undergraduate education of Ph.D. scientists, we should be more concerned with preparing our students for productive and satisfying careers in science at all levels. The best way we can do this is to broaden their science background as much as possible. Lee Hood believes this should begin at the pre-college level; we certainly should do this at the undergraduate level.

One concern is that broadening the training and making science education more interdisciplinary could result in weakening or watering down the level of science education. This need not be the case. Science education can be just as rigorous if we emphasize areas that are more relevant to the direction in which modern science is evolving. If the leading edge of science is occurring at the interfaces between the traditional disciplines, we need to train our students to be fluent and knowledgeable in more than one area of science. We need to carefully choose what topics to include, and teach them in a rigorous way; at the same time, we need to eliminate topics of less use in our modern science.

Undergraduate chemistry education should begin with an introductory course that excites students about chemistry. We should expose them to the interdisciplinary areas in which chemistry plays an important role, and the current problems that chemistry can help solve. Of course, we should teach the basics of chemistry, but within the context of a broad area of science. We should be concerned with teaching fewer topics better rather than many topics not so well -- that is, quality over quantity. We should excite students about a particular topic, and then spend the rest of the semester learning what is necessary in order to understand the science, even if it crosses disciplinary boundaries. We need to put more emphasis on comprehension and less on rote problem solving. Our students should be encouraged to read on their own and express their understanding through writing and oral communication.

We need to develop interdisciplinary teaching at all levels. True interdisciplinary teaching needs to be interdepartmental. A chemistry department, for example, deludes itself when it thinks that the mere inclusion of biology topics into its chemistry courses constitutes interdisciplinary teaching. Only when a biologist and a chemist come together to teach a common course, do they develop a common language and understanding of each other's discipline. Students learn by example, and when they see faculty from two departments coming together, they realize that science can be interdisciplinary and that each discipline can contribute useful ideas and approaches to a common problem.

We also need to encourage interdisciplinary interactions among all science faculty. In new and remodeled science buildings, faculty should be grouped by research interests rather than strictly by departments. Interdisciplinary teaching and research laboratories need to be developed. We need to break down the barriers that separate faculty in different disciplines. Inviting faculty to guest lecture in other disciplines, encouraging faculty to sit in on courses in other departments, and interdisciplinary seminar series are some ideas that may help break down these barriers.

Funding agencies need to broaden their perspectives. Because many agencies are set up to fund a specific discipline, they discourage proposals from coinvestigators in different disciplines, claiming that those proposals fall outside of their mandate. The NSF Molecular Biophysics Program supports investigators in many different departments; the department is irrelevant, they fund the science.

The one thing to avoid is to continue teaching science in the same way as we have in the past, despite the success we may have had. In order for science to grow, it needs to develop in new directions. In the past, we have prided ourselves as the major undergraduate source of scientists with Ph.D. degrees. In the future, with an oversupply of such scientists, this distinction will become irrelevant. We need to break down the boundaries between the traditional scientific disciplines. To successfully prepare our students for future careers in science, we have to encourage them to become fluent and knowledgeable in at least two different areas. In order to attract the best students, we need to expose them to exciting developments at the interdisciplinary frontiers and challenging problems that need to be solved. We also need to make our students aware of the many non-traditional alternative careers in science, and how a broad science education can be excellent preparation for many careers in and outside of science. In short, we need to redefine a special niche for science education at undergraduate liberal arts colleges.


Bush, V. 1945. Science: The Endless Frontier. Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Hendrickson, H. S. 1995. Undergraduate science education: a new direction. Council on Undergraduate Research Quarterly 15: 184-186.

Holden, C. 1995. Is it time to begin Ph.D. population control? Science 270: 123-128.

Kostiner, E. 1994. An open letter to chemistry faculty. Chemistry and Engineering News, December 19: 52.

National Academy of Sciences. 1995. Committee on Science Engineering, and Public Policy Report: Reshaping the graduate education of scientists and engineers. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

National Science Foundation. 1995. Workshop on Impact of Emerging Technologies on the Biological Sciences. June 26-27, Arlington, VA.

Seebach, D. 1990. Organic synthesis -- where now? Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. Engl. 29: 1320-1367.

Wrighton, M. 1995. Testimony before the Subcommittee on Basic Research, U.S. House of Representatives, Hearing on Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers, National Academy of Sciences Report. July 13, 1995, Washington, D.C.