When we think of Skidmore’s many academic strengths, the sciences have not always come immediately
to mind. But science was at the core of our signature nursing program, and exercise
science—highly regarded both inside the college and beyond—traces its origins to the
physical-education major. Our strategic plan highlights the importance of science
and calls for significant investment in this area for two primary reasons. First,
we will be a stronger liberal arts college with a larger percentage of science majors
(or double majors) in our student population. At present, we are on the way to moving
this number from 12 to 22 percent. Second, we have a social responsibility to help
all of our students achieve scientific literacy.
One reason for placing greater emphasis on scientific literacy is the modern democratic nation-state’s need for a scientifically literate voting population, one that is capable of understanding science- and technology-related public policy questions—with the funding of stem-cell research, the teaching of evolution in public schools, and the effect of human technological activity on our environment standing as just three examples. Today every citizen needs to understand our current technology, the potential gains and risks associated with the implementation of new technologies (e.g., why a new drug requires such extensive clinical trials before being introduced to the market), the lingering effects of old technologies (e.g., the presence of potentially hazardous substances in our water or air), and how technologies (e.g., a nuclear power plant) can fail. We also need to be concerned with the public-health threats posed by naturally occurring pathogens (e.g., the bacteria that cause cholera) and, in the post-9/11 world, the biochemical agents derived from them that can be sought by terrorists. The wonderful exhibit Molecules that Matter, currently at the Tang Museum, makes a powerful statement about the deep connection between science and human history. Given the importance of this connection in our contemporary lives, it seems beyond dispute that preparing our students to function as informed, responsible citizens must include providing them a basic understanding of science and technology.
Solutions to many contemporary problems reside at the intersections of traditional scientific disciplines—at the confluence of biology and chemistry, computer science and biology, biology and psychology, physics and geosciences, exercise science and biology, and throughout the interdisciplinary fields of environmental studies and neuroscience. To prepare for the work they will do in the economy of the twenty-first century, our science majors must learn to think, cooperate, and communicate across disciplinary boundaries. Accordingly, interdisciplinary science programs are an emerging focus of science education. We are determined not merely to join this movement but to become a leading proponent of interdisciplinary teaching in science among liberal arts colleges. We also want to foster undergraduate research, the close interaction of students and professors that models the work of discovery within the contemporary scientific community. Above all, we want our science majors and nonmajors alike to understand the processes of scientific discovery and the central role of creative thought in those processes. Every major theoretical or experimental advance in science has required an act of human imagination of the highest order.
We have the responsibility to help students achieve scientific literacy and to understand technology-related policy questions.
For all of these reasons, we are designing programs that guide students to the cutting edges in science, engaging them in the type of rigorous, inquiry-based study necessary to enter top-tier graduate programs, professional programs in health care, or corporate or academic research. We expect our science majors to undertake research, often in collaboration with members of the faculty. If we are to achieve true interdisciplinarity, we must dedicate time and resources to the cooperative design of curriculum across departments and provide the shared infrastructure necessary to support these new forms of teaching and learning.
So it is that we’ve identified the sciences as a major focus of our “Creative Thought, Bold Promise” campaign, designating a $15 million initiative to strengthen our interdisciplinary science programs in biomolecular science, neuroscience, and environmental science and to expand our student-faculty undergraduate research effort. One specific goal is to fund four new endowed professorships. In time, we also will need to expand our science facilities, an undertaking that will require considerably more than the initial $15 million. Our science faculty is now intensely engaged in planning the unique contribution Skidmore will make in this arena over the coming years. In so doing, they are laying the groundwork for a broader and more coherent science program that will serve a much larger number of students and establish the sciences as an integral part of the college’s institutional identity.