Beyond the Academy: Bringing Science Graduate Education into the 21st Century

From the National Science Foundation’s contest website.

The National Science Foundation recently held a contest asking students across the US to create proposals that would, if implemented, transform graduate education.  Our team submitted an entry which we believe is an efficient and practical way to open up new opportunities for graduate students while simultaneously catalyzing collaboration between academic and nonacademic entities.  Ultimately, our proposal seeks to bridge the divide between the academy and the many other sectors of the economy which rely upon scientific knowledge.  The full proposal can be viewed here, and a short summary of our principal aims and implementation plan follows below.

But we need your help to win.  Part of the NSF’s contest is a community choice prize in which anyone with an email address can vote.  We want you to vote for us–not just so that we win, but also to attract to NSF’s attention to this important issue. If you have a minute and an email address, click on this link, register, and submit a vote for the External Graduate Assistant Program (here). Thanks!

We contend that there is a fundamental inefficiency in the training of STEM students.  Although STEM students acquire substantial analytical and quantitative reasoning skills during their time as graduate students, little time is spent learning how to apply those skills beyond the academy.

We foresee a need for STEM students to disseminate their knowledge and competency outside of the ivory tower of academia.  To this end, we propose a system of External Graduate Assistantships (EGAs)—which would fill in for more traditional Teaching Assistantships—to provide an opportunity for STEM students to venture outside of their universities and make novel connections with non-academic organizations.

Each EGA would allow a graduate student to gain a semester’s worth of experience with an off-campus organization—an NGO, nonprofit, or even a corporation—in need of STEM knowledge or expertise.  An EGA would fulfill the requirement of one TAship; to allow the university to maintain their normal complement of teaching assistants, NSF would be provide a small subsidy equal to the cost of replacing that TAship.

A schematic of the External Graduate Assistantship.

An EGA would allow the student to experience a novel professional environment, and also to make contact with a broad spectrum of the general public.  EGAs would vary depending on the graduate student’s skills and the partner organization’s needs, but we describe three paradigmatic examples:

1) A geology student could partner with a senator’s office to quantitatively investigate the impact of climate change legislation.  The student’s familiarity with modeling climate processes could help to more accurately gauge the effects of the legislation, in turn allowing the senator to make a more informed decision.

2) A student familiar with issues of urban development might work in collaboration with a community organization to share the latest research on urban farming with the broader public.  Prospective urban farmers would therefore be better exposed to some of the issues and opportunities in urban farming.

3) A physics student might team up with a clean energy startup to translate her cutting-edge research into a prototype green technology.  Both student and startup would benefit by exposure to each other’s research, and the potential prototype could open up new opportunities for commercialization of the student’s research.

We believe that our proposal is feasible and transformative because it rewards each party in the process: STEM graduate students open new lines of professional communication; extra-academic organizations benefit from contact with young, knowledgeable workers, trained at the forefront of science; and universities benefit by establishing new links with outside organizations while helping their own graduate students prosper professionally.  Our system of EGAs incentivizes collaboration between academic and non-academic entities through shared graduate students, who will be able to translate their STEM skills, learned in the academy, into useful insights beyond the academy.

One thought on “Beyond the Academy: Bringing Science Graduate Education into the 21st Century

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