Post COVID-19 world: Is STEM academia in trouble?

Class of 2020, how does it feel? No giant ceremony, no group photos, and worst of all no family. Thousands of students from high school through professional degree programs graduated the Class of 2020 this past weekend. This year is definitely unique, but the Spring 2020 semester is likely going to set the stage for a major change in the dynamic of education for the foreseeable future.

The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the ease and applicability of virtual education. Suddenly instructors were able to sit from the comfort of their home or office and perform the same job they had been doing all along. So, what does this mean for post-pandemic academia? A recent article published on insidehighered.com brought to light the potential of asynchronous (Canvas, Blackboard-type) and synchronous (Zoom-type) platforms that are being brought together to eliminate the need for face-to-face learning.

But is this what we need? We are already falling behind the curve in most subjects as an American nation. At the medical school level, we already face this reality, with most medical students skipping class to spend extra time studying and just reviewing the lecture online at their leisure.

I think we can take this opportunity to create a large paradigm shift in education that has been long overdue.

Is a virtual world a bad one for scientists?

I am all for bringing more technology and virtual instruction into the classroom and I think it would be a great use of resources. However, we cannot use this as an excuse to get lazy with our teaching methods. Now I am not going to comment on some liberal arts fields, but a world without labs or actual hands-on instruction could put us into a worse position. If we are going to go to a virtual instruction paradigm, we need to compensate with more hands-on education and application of materials.

I remember not understanding anything from organic chemistry lecture and then stepping into lab that week and having everything click in my mind. I always tell my students that they can know the whole process of an experiment (i.e. western blotting) and it won’t mean anything unless they go through the pain-staking process of failing and learning the process with their hands. My point being, we cannot condemn students to a virtual ‘education’ when real work is done in the lab after years of learning and perfecting your techniques.

How can science benefit from a paradigm change?

I have had this conversation many times, but I remember one distinct debate at a recent conference where we discussed the potential for obtaining doctoral level degrees outside of academia. Imagine getting a degree through a company like Pfizer or Eli Lilly? Take your courses virtually while learning your basic biotechnology techniques and then jump into your ‘internship’ where you learn from experts in the field and you are part of a research team. The link between the private sector and academia could benefit from this kind of scenario, bringing big $$$ to academia while standardizing the training of scientists.

What is certain is that we are going to see major changes in academia as a result of this crisis. We are already seeing some funding cuts and unfavorable changes to our lifestyles as scientists. We need to come out of this crisis stronger and advocating for more responsibility in our education system, not an excuse to push learning to a lazier platform.

What do you think? Are you starting to see changes you like? or don’t like? What would you like to see happen in academia as result of the COVID-19 shutdown? Share in the comments below!

Interested in contributing original content to the ASIP blog? Contact me at alexander.sougiannis@uscmed.sc.edu to get involved!

ASIP Virtual Hangout for Trainee Members

The ASIP is hosting a free virtual hangout for trainee and junior members. The goal of this virtual hangout is to bring together scientists to share their stories about life during COVID and the obstacles they have had to overcome. The first session is currently being organized and will be announced once we have a firm date. If you are interested in registering, please send an email to wbcoleman@asip.org.

EDUCATION COMMITTEE ANNOUNCEMENTS

PISA 2020 is still happening! Join your fellow ASIP members at the Royal Sonesta Hotel in Boston November 7-9, 2020. https://pisa20.asip.org/

Interested in becoming a member of ASIP? Contact me at alexander.sougiannis@uscmed.sc.edu  www.linkedin.com/in/alexander-sougiannis