Bridging the gap between professors and new students

How does a modern nation distribute its academic talent to most efficiently advance their next generation of students?

I returned to university to study for my doctorate degree after having taught high school biology for 10 years. It was exciting studying in a university where I was in close contact with the giants in my field.

As doctoral students, we not only had those giants as teachers but sat beside them in seminars. We learned how to ask probing questions to advance new science. We were engaging weekly with great minds.

I also realised how this would have allowed me to return to my high school classroom and enthral students with first-hand stories of the very individuals who were discovering the concepts that would appear in their textbook’s next revision.

One academic had contributed to the species concept in their book. Another professor was the father of bee biology. Another was the world expert on scorpion flies. And one had participated in developing the new way that organisms are classified.

Their stories, including how they had generated their new ideas, would have made these ideas come alive in a public school classroom.

An academic world apart

I also realised that the high school biology teachers being trained at this very same university would almost never come into contact with these great minds. Instead, they were herded into large classrooms for their undergraduate classes.

They were often in the same building, only a few rooms away from us, but in an academic world apart.

These distinguished professors had heavier research loads and lighter teaching loads. They mainly taught small classes for advanced masters and doctoral students. Only the relatively small number of graduate students had this wonderful opportunity to share new ideas and have short-but-critical hallway discussions with the best minds in our field.

So why not have these distinguished professors also teach the introductory freshman courses? There would certainly be more converts into the sciences. And those students who were to become teachers would have so much more academic excitement to take into their future classrooms.

The academic pyramid

The answer that universities will provide is that there is a pyramid of academics – a layering where the Nobel Prize winners only see a few doctoral candidates.

The younger and lower ranked professors will take on the heavier burden of teaching juniors and seniors. And more and more, our freshmen (first-year students) and sophomores (second-year students) will get low-paid adjunct teachers or doctoral-students-in-training.

The more grants a professor gets, the more they distance themselves from undergraduate students and concentrate on research with a few masters and doctoral students.

This is especially egregious at the large research universities. But it is also becoming the mode of operation at smaller public regional universities across America, where counting and ranking research papers has nearly replaced all other forms of faculty evaluation.

Even where teaching is ‘Job One’, there is a strong argument that conducting research will stimulate ‘keeping up’ in the field and improve faculty teaching.

But higher education needs to acknowledge that the reverse is also true: that teaching at the introductory level can contribute to a scientist’s research.

Teaching and research are linked

This was clearly explained by American theoretical physicist Richard
Feynman who shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. He greatly valued teaching, and especially the teaching of beginning non-major students.

He describes the important contribution of teaching to his research in the popular book Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!

When Feynman was offered the opportunity to go to the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study and be paid an enormous salary just to think, he turned the offer down.

He explains in the book why it is so important for him to continually engage with students. It is in explaining what we think we know that he detects gaps in what we really know.

And it was in the CalTech cafeteria that he saw a student throw a plate through the air and realised the medallion on the plate seemed to go around at a different speed than the plate wobbled.

This observation eventually led to calculations that contributed to his Nobel Prize, which he was awarded with Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger "for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics (QED), with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles".

In the end, it is teachers who live on in their students. That means we need at least some of our greatest professors to interface with some of our youngest students if we are to produce the best next generation of students possible.

John Richard Schrock is a professor of biology emeritus at Emporia State University in Kansas, United States, and each year teaches classes in various Chinese universities.