Teaching and Learning Forum 98 [ Contents ]

Undergraduate science degrees: Too much training and not enough education?

Stephen R. Kessell
Science and Mathematics Education Centre
Curtin University of Technology
Many tertiary science degrees have become so specialised that graduates, while highly trained in their discipline, have received very little in the way of an education.

Contributing to this dilemma are:

It has been my experience, reinforced by the results of several surveys of the professions, that such as approach produces graduates who: The latter effect is perhaps the most worrisome. Such graduates may have absorbed a great deal of highly technical information, which often has a short "half life"; however, they frequently do not understand the scientific method, how science changes and grows, how they will need to change and grow throughout their careers, or how best to apply their expensive training to new problems and issues.

This "Dilemma Session" examines ways to address these problems within the constraints of a 3-year degree.

The undergraduates' perspective

For many years, I have devoted one week of a third-year science professional practice unit to the topic: Will I have the range of non-technical skills, such as professional communication and "people" skills, an understanding of how organisations function, the ability to work independently or on a team, and the ability to apply my knowledge to new problems and find innovative solutions, that employers seek?

To my surprise, most final-year students were not defensive, but rather expressed concern that the depth of training they had received at Uni hindered their development of professional skills, an understanding of how they could contribute to their profession, and how their practice of their chosen profession might impact society -- for good or for bad.

I then asked:

If money were no object, would you rather obtain your degree from Harvard (or Princeton, or MIT) than from Curtin?
When the vast majority answered in the affirmative, I then asked: Why?

Most students were unable to say why explicitly; some suggested better teachers, better facilities, cutting-edge technology, and reputation might be reasons. The rare student suggested that American colleges and universities offered 4-year degrees and a greater breadth of study. Before we examined if longer degrees and a greater breadth of study are good or bad, I gave them a thumb-nail sketch of doing a science degree at my alma mata, Amherst College.

I noted that Amherst is one of the "old liberal arts colleges", is extremely selective, teaches only undergraduates, has only 1500 students and a 7:1 faculty - student ratio, has been rated by U.S. News and World Report as one of America's top three colleges (along with Williams and Swarthmore) for years, and costs over A $ 30,000 per year to attend (we discuss its "financially blind" admission policy later).

How would doing a computing (or maths, or physics) degree at Amherst differ from doing one at Curtin?

I sketch out a science major at Amherst. Students notice that its 4-year arts degree has less specialised study in the major than Curtin's 3-year degrees. Someone invariably asks: What do you do for the rest of the time?

My Handbook (Amherst College 1991) is a few years old, but succinctly outlines what Amherst sees as an essential education beyond the students' major:

Freshmen also are required to take one course in a program called Introduction to Liberal Studies (ILS). Each ISL course is planned and taught by two or more members of the faculty, representing different disciplines, who collaborate to develop an interdisciplinary unit. Current offerings include: Romanticism and the Enlightenment; The Nuclear Era; The Causes of History; Mass Extinctions: Case Study of a Scientific Controversy; Evolution and Intellectual Revolution; The Imagined Landscape; and The Mind.

We now look at the question:

Within a few minutes, the debate is fervent. Typical points in favour of the liberal arts model include: Typical points in favour of the specialised model include: Sooner or later, someone asks:

The employers' perspective

A number of recent national employer surveys (including Australia 1992; Australian Association of Graduate Employers 1993) have also addressed the deficiencies of intensive science degrees that effectively exclude any real breadth of study. The Discipline Review of Computing Studies and Information Science Education (Hudson 1992) noted:
IT (Information Technology) professionals need to have an understanding of the cultural, social, legal and ethical issues inherent in these professional areas. There is a need to understand where the IT disciplines have come from and where they are heading and to appreciate philosophical questions and issues relating to the social impact of computing. IT professionals also must be aware of basic legal issues, particularly in the area of intellectual property, and understand ethical values that should be a basis for commercial activity (p.189).
I also conducted a survey of 12 major Western Australian employers of the School's graduates; follow-up interviews were conducted with half of them (Kessell 1996, 1997b). Comments included:
It is very important that employees possess good written and verbal communications skills. There are several reasons for this:

Technical meetings are a key aspect of our software development process.

Staff are expected to clearly convey issues and take part in discussions.

Staff are often involved in tenders/bids and must be able to convey ideas in a concise and effective manner.

Potential customers often require demonstrations of our products and more often than not we have to rely on our technical staff who are familiar with the product.

Technical staff have to be able to document the work they do.

From my point of view, as I work a lot in preparing tender responses, I feel that there is a big improvement to be had in writing skills. It is very important to get the key ideas across in as few words as possible; that is, the message needs to be clear and conveyed effectively and efficiently. Most graduates can not do this.

There is no point in employing someone who can't communicate, whatever his/her technical skills. I once made the mistake of employing a new graduate (excellent grades, said to be a self-starter) who turned out to be a poor communicator. He cost us a lot of money (before his employment was terminated).

Increasingly graduates are and will be required to communicate effectively. These skills seem to be linked to the level of experience but my observation is that there is a need for basic information on the topics noted (in your questionnaire) ... (Department name) has in the past been a significant employer of graduates ... (we) increasingly contract work to companies and individuals, who are required to be professional, and able to communicate effectively both orally and in writing. These service providers will also be required to undertake formal Quality Assurance accreditation.

Communication skills are critically important in the IT support fields (far more so than in traditional software development / programming fields). People employed in this area still need to be highly technically competent, but also need to be able to convey a sense of being approachable, need to be able to hear and understand a person's queries and comments, and need to be able to communicate the appropriate response in a confident way, without using jargon or a patronising tone of voice.

ESRI - Australia Pty Ltd is one of the two largest employers of our geographic information systems graduates. Its Managing Director, Mr Ron Hutchinson (who has granted permission for me to name him), noted:

Communication skills are very important to us as our staff are required to not only be GIS technology competent but also able to perform marketing, understand contracts and business law. We have no place for back room technocrats who cannot present their knowledge, understand user needs (listen) and develop a good cost benefit report. In evaluating potential employees, we put high value on communication, presentation and general knowledge (particularly politics, business, taxation, etc.). Hence, the job does not always go to the graduate with the highest marks in computing subjects.
Most respondents also believed that the mandatory study of business practices and ethics were highly desirable in science and engineering degrees (Kessell 1996). The School of Computing's own Advisory Board (Minutes, Joint Meeting of Computing Science Advisory Board and Board of Study, 6 November 1995) noted:
Industry members felt that graduating students tended to be lacking in personal communication and presentation skills It was considered that it was necessary for graduates to understand more was required of them than just technical competence.
Greg Beetston, from the Department of Agriculture, expressed concern that undergraduate students could be specialising too early and not receiving a good foundation in basics.

The graduates' perspective

During the period 1989-95, two of Curtin's science degrees included mandatory units in technical writing, oral presentation, professional practice, and interpersonal skills. A third unit, called Information Technology and Society, was taught from 1992-96; it dealt with the history and philosophy of science, how science and technology impact society, and the ethical and moral aspects on technological growth. As part of a broader study (Kessell 1996), I surveyed over 100 final year students and recent graduates who had taken this unit. The vast majority (over 90%) rated the unit highly, and over 98% opposed its abolition. Typical comments included:
Taking into consideration my current employment, I have found little use if any for the technical side of my education... The most common phrase used to describe Information Technology and Society is "it makes you think". It is most likely the only unit that teaches thinking skills ... the unit encourages good thinking or reasoning skills by posing questions that our best philosophers have yet to agree on ... In some respects, the unit also encourages diplomatic techniques. Students may try to solve difficult points in the discussion with compromise or by giving ground. The three units combined covered a very large portion of professional interaction. I feel I owe most of my education and knowledge to these units.

Did the unit make me think? YES, A LOT!!!! In contrast to almost all the other undergraduate units that I undertook, only IT&S-152 made me think. The majority of the other undergraduate courses were simply either rote learning or hacking. If I didn't understand something in a unit, I would read up on it in the text book. In a sense, you are told what you should think (ie the text book is truth). With IT&S-152 I was taught to think. There are no wrongs or rights, and once I determined my stance on a particular issue, it was up to me to defend it by what ever means I had.

Since reading the assigned book, Ferris' Coming of Age in the Milky Way, I have read William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which has completely changed my views on war and government. The point is this: IT&S-152 presented me with material of a completely different nature to anything I had been fed for a long time, and not only did I enjoy it, but it motivated me to seek a broader knowledge under my own steam. My opinions on a broad range of subjects have changed over the last twelve months; while it may seem a bit much to attribute this to a single unit, I feel I can single out IT&S-152 as the point at which it began.

The learning experience itself was a welcome relief from the routine rigours of the week. The concept of making people think is grossly underestimated by the boffins running Curtin. They fail to see that the positive stimulation received in these units rubs off on the units they want the results in.

The learning experience ... of these units was stimulating, challenging and useful in that it required the students to think for themselves. Many units provide the material in lectures in a boring "monkey see, monkey do" manner, whereas, the (three) units in question place all material before the student in an unconventional fashion, requiring the student to actually think to uncover the true meaning of the topic being covered ... since entering the workforce, I have found a use for most of the material presented in this unit.

My perspective

I jointed Curtin in 1987, after 15 years in industry, government and private practice (in both North America and Australia). In my view, the major limitations of all recent graduates, but especially Australian graduates, was their lack of ability to see the broader picture, to devise innovative problem solving skills and solutions ("They didn't teach us that at Uni"), to communicate their work to a range of audiences, and to appreciate the impact of their work in a broader context. A good example was my time with the Office of the Supervising Scientist for the Alligator Rivers Region (the Commonwealth statutory body that oversees the impacts of uranium mining and milling in the Kakadu region) during the early 1980's, where I supervised about 15 recent science graduates. While virtually all of these young scientists were highly competent technically in their own fields, the ability of many to work across traditional disciplinary boundaries, to see the bigger picture, to devise innovative solution to unique problems, to operate within the constraints of the Public Service, to deal with rather primitive laboratory conditions, to relate to both traditional owners and construction workers in a small, closed mining campsite, and especially to communicate their results (to biased participants in a politically charged environmental -- development debate), was frequently lacking (or at least inadequately developed). A similar crew of young American and Canadian graduates, who worked for me on another controversial environmental project in the Northern Rocky Mountains during the 1970's, fared better -- marginally, at least. [Perhaps the difference is relative -- one local Montana "redneck" put it this way: "Those young people working for you sure must be smart -- too bad they ain't got no common sense."] Sadly, I think the situation is worse now than it was twenty years ago.

Over the period 1987-94, I was the architect of several specialised degrees at Curtin (BSc and honours in Computing Science and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), and Graduate Diploma, Postgraduate Diploma, and MSc in GIS). Typically, 80 - 90 % of the undergraduate degrees included mandatory study in the student's "major", and most students chose (and were encouraged to choose) their few electives from still more specialised offerings in their major field; they actively were discouraged by many academics from selecting electives from other disciplines. As noted above, I did manage to include three mandatory "breadth - literacy - communication" subjects in the undergraduate degrees; these were a first-year technical communications - how to survive Uni unit, a third-year professional practice unit, and a history, philosophy, impacts and ethics of science and technology unit. Also noted above, extensive formative and summative evaluation, and a detailed survey of recent graduates, rated these three units as the most important subjects studied at Uni. Over the past two years, the availability and content of these three breadth subjects have been reduced drastically (to make room for additional technical subjects). By next year, most graduates in computing science will have spent more than 90 % of their time at Uni studying in their specialised field, with virtually no opportunity to engage in other fields of learning.

This flies in the face of what graduates, employer bodies, professional organisations and many academic tell us constitutes an appropriate undergraduate education and preparation for a profession. In my view, too many Australian academics -- especially in the science, technology and engineering disciplines -- refuse to see any real value in even limited study outside one's specialty, or to listen to what graduates and employers are trying to tell them. A contributing incentive for highly specialised study is financial, as many departments lose funding when their student take electives in other departments. Should education policies be determined by internal funding models? Sadly, I think they are.

One former Curtin Head of School abolished the history and philosophy of science unit as being "soft and irrelevant" (even though he complained that many of his research students didn't understand the scientific method!). That unit is now offered as a graduate subject in Curtin's Science and Mathematics Education Centre (but, as a graduate unit, is unlikely to be available to undergraduate students). The science school replaced it with a new unit on "advanced widget engineering".

I've reported elsewhere (Kessell 1997a) that students who had completed the history and philosophy of science unit fared much better in advanced spatial analysis, modelling and applications subjects -- subjects that require refined abstraction, problem solving, and lateral thinking skills. This led, over a 3-year period, to changes in the teaching method (more "real world" problems requiring teams of students) and assessment (fewer but more difficult tasks, and a "take home" exam that required considerable research and exploration of alternative solutions to complete). This resulted in better grades and improved student satisfaction with the unit, but more importantly, demonstrated a noticeable reduction in shallow, and improvement in deep, learning (as reported by graduates and employers).

I vividly remember my friend in Montana saying: "Those young people working for you sure must be smart -- too bad they ain't got no common sense." The employers of our graduates who had taken a broader look at their discipline and explored alternative solutions to real world problems, are of the view that they exhibit more "common sense" now and are better employees as a result of the exercise. But too many heads of schools seem to think that another rote learning exercise in advanced widget engineering is more important.

So again I ask:


  1. Amherst is very proud that it still retains a "financially blind admission policy". Under this policy, an applicant's financial means are not considered during the selection process. If selected, the applicant and his/her family submit a confidential financial statement. The College determines what the family can be expected to contribute annually. The student is provided part-time employment on campus, and is expected to earn a certain amount over the summer vacation; the College provides a financial aid package to cover the rest of the student's expenses. However, the balance between scholarship and loan is determined by the student's academic results! A top student will graduate owing nothing, while a marginal student may graduate carrying a loan of $ 100,000. In my case, this was an excellent incentive for getting good grades!

Literature Cited

Amherst College (1991). Amherst College Catalog 1991-92. Amherst (MA): Amherst College Press.

Australia. (1992). National Board of Employment, Education and Training (NBEET). Skills required of graduates: One test of quality in Australian higher education. Higher Education Commission Report No. 20. Canberra: AGPS.

Australian Association of Graduate Employers. (1993). National survey of graduate employers. Sydney: AAGE.

Hudson, H. (chair ). (1992). Department of Employment, Education and Training (DEET). Report of the Discipline Review of Computing Studies and Information Sciences Education (Vol. 2: The Main Report). Canberra: AGPS.

Kessell, S. R. (1996). An evaluation of "literacy" and "breadth" units, and the provision of student counselling, in undergraduate science courses. Master of Education thesis. Perth: Curtin University of Technology.

Kessell, S. R. (1997a). Improving science students problem solving skills. Proceedings Western Australian Institute for Educational Research Forum 1997. http://education.curtin.edu.au/waier/forums/1997/kessell.html

Kessell, S. R. (1997b). Teaching literacy in intensive science degrees: A formal evaluation. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p154-162. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University.

Please cite as: Kessell, S. R. (1998). Undergraduate science degrees: Too much training and not enough education? In Black, B. and Stanley, N. (Eds), Teaching and Learning in Changing Times, 149-155. Proceedings of the 7th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, The University of Western Australia, February 1998. Perth: UWA. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1998/kessell.html

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