Educating students for a career in the workforce or a place in society: why do not both?

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Sandra Porter

For those of you who may have been wondering where I've been, these past few weeks have seen me grading final projects, writing a chapter on analyzing Next Gen DNA sequencing data for the Current Protocols series, and flying back and forth between Seattle and various meetings elsewhere in the U.S. It will probably take years of bike commuting to make up for my carbon credits, but most meetings I attend don't have viable alternatives in venues like Second Life or World of Warcraft. Anyway, as I sit writing on an airplane, I think I could revise the title for Dr. Seuss' famous book to "Oh the places I've been."

Inside the tropical house at the Missouri Botanical Garden

Both of the main meetings I attended, the Bio-Link fellows workshop and the iPlant education planning conference, were interesting and fun. Both were concerned with science education and great learning opportunities. And both meetings celebrated the accomplishments of former students. But there was a notable difference. At one meeting we celebrated our students' after-graduation careers and at the other, faculty celebrated students' names on publications.

To be fair, the professors at four year and two year schools have somewhat different goals for their graduates. Bio-Link instructors are concerned with educating students for a career in the workforce. In contrast, when one iPlant professor was queried about available jobs for her graduates, she stated, to an enthusiastically clapping audience, that her goal was to produce educated citizens. This statement puzzles me. It's not clear to me why anyone would think that the goals of preparing students for a career and preparing them for society are mutually exclusive.

As a tenured faculty member, I felt responsible for making sure my students learned skills that would make them employable. Teaching at a community college, when you know your students are working several hours a week, caring for children, taking your five-hour twice-a-week lab class, and you're there with them in the lab, makes it impossible to ignore the needs and goals of your immediate community. One of the iPlant professors said that 90% of her students planned to apply to medical school. My students weren't bound for medical or graduate school; they wanted decent jobs.

Nevertheless, many of the classroom activities presented at iPlant, even by the professor who dismissed job skills as irrelevant, really would help prepare students for life-science careers, simply because the students would get so much more attention, learn to think like scientists, and get more practice with lab skills and using science than they would in a conventional course.

If iPlant succeeds in it's mission, to take on grand challenges like helping us understand plant life well enough to cope with our changing climate, and the secondary challenge of providing a mechanism for students to participate as colleagues in the research community, the goals of both kinds of institutions, producing educated citizens and producing citizens who can find jobs, might be met whether intentional or not.