Science and the liberal arts

My first course in an earth science subject was Introductory Geology, taken during my freshman year at Carleton College. Carleton is a small liberal arts school in Minnesota, but one of the things that attracted me was their strength and reputation in science. So it surprised me a little when I discovered that all Carleton graduates receive a Bachelor of Arts degree; the Bachelor of Science wasn’t offered, even for the science majors. As I eventually discovered, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

A National Science Foundation report (Burrelli, Rapoport, and Lehming, 2008) looked at where people who eventually earned doctoral degrees in science and engineering (S&E) had earned their bachelors degrees. Most doctoral awardees began their college educations at large state universities. This isn’t unexpected, given the gigantic enrollment of these schools; places like University of Florida or Ohio State have over 30,000 undergraduate students.

What many people may not realize is that state universities don’t actually produce many S&E doctoral students as a percentage of their total enrollment. On a per capita basis, private liberal arts schools produce far more students who go on to earn S&E doctorates. In the study, of the top 50 per capita schools, 47 were private schools and 28 were liberal arts schools. My alma mater, Carleton, was sixth on the per capita list with 11.7% of its students eventually receiving S&E doctorates. (Incidentally, the two schools I turned down to go to Carleton were also in the top 50; Case Western Reserve at number 23, and William and Mary at number 45).

I don’t actually find these results very surprising, as five of the eight geology professors who taught me at Carleton had degrees from liberal arts colleges, four of them from Carleton. This pattern is reflected in the undergraduate students who have worked with me on various projects or excavations at the museum. Eight different schools have sent students to work with me here, but the only one with more than 10,000 students enrolled is Virginia Tech (number 21 on the total S&E doctorate list), which is close to the museum and where I’m on the adjunct faculty. Of the other seven schools, four are liberal arts colleges, and three are in the per capita top 50 (Earlham, William and Mary, and Brandeis).

While I admit that I’m a little stoked that Carleton was sixth on the per capita list, I actually have a more practical interest in this issue. I’m frequently asked by middle and high school students (or their parents) where they should go to college to become a paleontologist or geologist. The stock answer is that, since practically no schools offer undergraduate paleontology programs, find a school that’s good in geology or biology. But what schools are good in these areas? This study shows that having a world-class science research program does not automatically make a school a good choice for an undergraduate student.

Why do liberal arts schools seem to do so well at producing S&E doctorates? Of course, one thing that could be significant is that students with a high aptitude in science may seek out those schools, rather than the schools themselves doing something differently. But there are some characteristics of the schools that may make them particularly well suited to producing S&E doctorates.

Small liberal arts schools tend to have famously low student-teacher ratios, often 10:1 or better. It’s rare at these schools to have classes with 50 students, and 100-student classes are practically unheard of. During my time at Carleton I took two classes that had approximately 30 students (Introductory Chemistry and Introductory Sociology), and only a handful of classes that had more than 15 students. Since graduating I have taught classes with as many as 80 students and as few as four; it’s a lot easier to teach effectively when you only have four students!

Most of these schools are purely undergraduate institutions, so they don’t have graduate students. Many of the undergraduate courses at research universities are taught by graduate students, who usually have little or no training at being teachers. In fact, that’s where many scientists first begin to learn how to be teachers in addition to scientists. (Maybe one day I’ll do a blog post on teaching as a professional skill that must be practiced and developed, apart from knowledge of content, but that’s for another time.) Without graduate students, the responsibility for teaching at small schools falls entirely on the faculty.

Related to this is the nature of hiring and tenure practices at different schools. At research universities faculty are generally hired and retained based on their ability to produce publishable research and obtain research grants. Teaching is a secondary (or tertiary) concern. That’s not to say that these folks are necessarily poor teachers; many of them excel at teaching (remember, even if they don’t teach undergraduate classes they are still teaching advanced graduate courses). But a faculty member at a research school will spend most of their time and effort on developing their research, if they want to keep their job.

Liberal arts schools, on the other hand, tend to look for faculty that are teachers first and researchers second. Being an outstanding teacher takes a lot of time and effort, and that often adversely affects the ability to focus on research all the time. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, consider how much time I spend in the field each year. If I were in a teaching rather than a research position there’s no way I could spend that much time on research and still do an adequate job teaching my students. Liberal arts schools tend to hire and retain faculty that put a lot of effort into developing their teaching abilities.

I personally feel that, in addition to all these things, a liberal arts curriculum lends itself well to the development of scientists. If I were to do a word association exercise concerning what makes an effective scientist, it would include things like curiosity, observation, and evaluation. Science is often described as being a method of thinking rather than a body of knowledge. That type of thinking can be applied across a variety of disciplines, and a liberal arts curriculum encourages a student to try and understand everything they encounter. Most liberal arts schools require their students to take courses across a variety of disciplines. I remember grumbling about it at the time, but it turned out that my undergraduate linguistics classes gave me a better understanding of classification schemes (like those used in biology), and the skills I learned in theater design classes were very helpful in developing museum exhibits years later. These schools also strongly encourage (or even require) participation in peripheral academic or extracurricular activities. Brett (who is also a Carleton Geology graduate) took violin lessons and participated in a folk dance troupe; I took SCUBA lessons and played football (participating in a sport is an excellent way to gain insight into function of bones and muscles). These kinds of opportunities are available at almost any college or university, but a core part of the philosophy at liberal arts colleges is to embrace a diversity of experiences.

My undergraduate days at Carleton College, 1988, with Severance Hall in the background.

Exposure to a variety of concepts can allow one to approach a problem from a novel angle, and to see parallels and analogs that wouldn’t be noticed by someone with a more narrow range of experiences. Perhaps the most famous example in natural science is the direct influence of the economic theories of Thomas Malthus on both Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace in the development of evolutionary theory.

So where should would-be paleontologists go to school? Even with all I’ve written here, that remains a choice in which the student’s personality and preferences are perhaps the most significant variables. But the idea that one can only obtain a good science education at a research school (which I’ve heard from some students and parents) is not correct, as evidenced by the thousands of professional scientists who have taken a route that began at a small liberal arts school.

Reference: Burrelli, J., A. Rapoport, and R. Lehming, 2008. Baccalaureate Origins of S&E Doctorate Recipients. InfoBrief SRS, National Science Foundation Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences. NSF 08-311, 8 p.

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