Bronwyn O'Brien, UTS Faculty of Science
Associate Professor Bronwyn O'Brien's keynote address at the 2015 Learning and Teaching Showcase uncovers the authentic symbiosis between learning and teaching and research. Her address is called, "Monday is my Research Day". Bronwyn chose this title because she thinks it reflects the historical dichotomy that has existed in universities between learning and teaching and research.
The title of this talk would be ‘Aspiring towards an authentic symbiosis between learning and teaching and research.’ What do I mean by authentic? I mean a curriculum that is research-driven, research orientated, research tutored and research lived. I chose this title because I think it reflects the historical dichotomy that has existed in universities between learning and teaching and research. I also alluded to the word ‘aspirations’ because this work is currently a collaborative work in progress with Adam Morgan from IML. Now, our current pope, Pope Francis, actually began his career in technical school where he graduated as a chemical technician. He then had a brief period of work experience in the food technology industry, before returning to the University of Buenos Aires where he completed his Masters in Chemistry. Now, immediately after graduating, he chose a career change to become a priest. Now, I don’t know where Tony is, but maybe if he enrolled in one of your classes, Tony, it may be quite a different outcome.
But it does beg the question, what would catalyse such a seemingly drastic change in career choice? Well, if Pope Francis was a recent graduate in Australia, a move away from science would not be extremely unusual, because it appears that currently the labour market for science graduates is over-supplied. This data here is from a recent report from the Grattan Institute based on 2011 Census data. It shows that only 60 per cent of science graduates are currently in jobs that match their qualifications, and this data excludes science graduates who are currently not working and those who are enrolled in an education degree. Additionally, the bulk of students that graduate from science degrees and work in science don’t stay there for an extremely long period of time. So that begs the question that we need to be preparing science graduates for additional careers. Now, employers – higher education sector employers – value scientific know-how. Quantitative skills, decisions based on evidence, the ability to critically analyse and critique evidence, the development of new ways of doing and understanding things are inherent to a science education at university. But they’re also extremely important for other degrees as well. In addition to hungering for scientific know-how, employers also have an appetite for graduates who can function effectively in our current runaway world – our world that’s characterised by volatility, uncertainty, chaos and ambiguity. Now unfortunately, we are not really facilitating the development of these 21stcentury skills in our students. Historically, science students at UTS and indeed, students from UTS per se, respond the least positively in the course experience questionnaire to the statement ‘As a result of my degree, I feel that I can effectively deal with unfamiliar problems.’ Now interestingly, students who graduate from midwifery degrees rank this criteria a lot more positively. So does this indicate that perhaps science graduates don’t actually need to deal with uncertainty? Does a previous set of data maybe indicate that science no longer has the place in the world that it once did? Are we perhaps scientifically or technologically maxed out? So let’s take a look at the world and the picture of the world that I want to show you is one from 1990, taken over 4,000,000,000 kilometres away from the Voyager 1 that travelled through the solar system into inter-celestial space. So that’s us, that’s home, that’s everything. That’s everything that we know, everybody that you hate, everybody that you love, everybody that you know, everybody that you don’t know, everybody who has ever lived has spent time on this pale blue dot. It’s the culmination of our joy, our sorrow, our sameness, our difference, our tolerance, our intolerance, our success, and our failure. Every young couple in love, every parent, every child, child, every student, every explorer, every inventor, every scientist, you, everybody, has spent time on this pale blue dot. So now from a scientific perspective, let’s take another look at the world and what has been achieved in the last 25 years. What has the pace of scientific progress been? There’s a few examples here. What have we done? Well, we’ve added an extra 2,000,000,000 people to the earth. We’ve increased carbon emissions by 42 per cent each year – that’s 12,000,000,000 tonnes. We’ve collapsed time and space. The mobile phone that’s currently in your pocket or in your purse or in your hand, if you’re texting now, has over a quarter of a billion times the memory and processing power that the computers that to voyager through the solar system and into inter-celestial space. You can have your genome sequenced for a thousand dollars in a couple of hours by a machine, something that took 200 scientists, $3,000,000,000 dollars and 11 years to achieve and was commenced in 1990. The pipe dream of the hover board that featured in the 1990 release of Back to the Future II is now a reality. So the pace of scientific progress has been phenomenal. Now let’s take a step back from the world and to Australia and Australian universities. Now, to be a fully-fledged university in Australia, there has to be active research in at least three broad fields of study. And science is invariably one of those fields of study. Now, 85 per cent of Australian universities – that’s 33 out of the 39 universities in Australia – state that they aspire to integrate learning and teaching and research in some way. That’s the good news. The bad news is recent reports from AUQA indicate that these aspirations are poorly translated into practical strategies for implementation. So what’s the hurdle? Australia has approximately 30,000 students currently enrolled in science degrees. Now, a key factor to effectively integrating learning and teaching and research is students’ appreciation that the university is in fact a research environment. Now, students reveal that evidence of research is visible in the presence of laboratories and machineries and infrastructure, but it’s generally done behind closed doors by academics over there. And I’m often stunned by many attempts to integrate learning and teaching and research that stops short of fully engaging students, particularly undergraduate students, in the research culture. Many attempts to integrate teaching and learning and research hold students at arm’s length, as it were, from the academics who are actually doing the research. We almost have a mentality that research is a reward for hard work. It is the culmination of an academic career as a student, and it’s preserved for those students who graduate, do honours, maybe a master’s and then a PhD. Why is this happening? A lot of the reason is due to external factors – political and economic. If we look at the major funding bodies in Australia, such as the NHMRC, there is no provision for funding to immerse undergraduate students in the research culture. Now, this is in stark contrast to funding agencies in the United States, such as the US Foundation of Science, where there is that provision. Some are also internal, in terms of the structure of the university. Our committee structure, our performance management procedures, our promotion processes – a lot of the structures within the university see research and teaching and learning as being separate, almost competing, entities. Is this such a bad thing, research being disconnected from learning and teaching? I think it’s terrible, almost immoral. And to illustrate that to you, I’m going to actually walk you through a couple of things. The first thing I want to do is to show you what’s happening behind those closed doors, and the second thing I want to do is give you an insight into the type of world that our students are living in and the workplace that they will enter. So what’s happening behind these closed doors? If you look on the left-hand side, you may recognise some of these diseases. They’re autoimmune diseases. They’re pathologies where the immune system gets it wrong and multi-tasks, rather than just eliminating a tumour cell or a flu virus, the immune system starts to attack the body’s own tissues and it destroys organs. Now, you may recognise some of these diseases; you may even know someone that has one, maybe two, of these diseases. I knew someone that had all 10, including the last one, of which there were only five other people in the world who had this disease, and it’s currently being investigated by the Mayo Clinic. Now, they say that all mothers are unique and special. Clinically speaking, mine is very unique and special, as she had all 10 of these diseases. So behind these doors, there is a lot of intrinsic motivation. Next, add a bit of serendipity, astute observation, some hard work and some more hard work. It’s been said that Mother Nature is a formidable opponent, but she is also an amazing ally. And this little guy is testament to this. This is a liver fluke. What this liver fluke likes to do is that it likes to infect you and it likes to fly under your immunological radar, because it wants to exist within you, the host, for 10, 20 years. How does it do this? It fine tunes the immune system, so about 10 years ago I was having a cup of coffee with a group of parisitologists, and we started to talk that if you live near the equator and you have a belly full of worms, you don’t get autoimmune disease. Whereas if you live in western culture, where things are a lot more hygienic and parasitic infections are not endemic, you get a lot of autoimmune disease. So a 10-year story cut short, we are now in a position where we have one molecule from this little guy that prevents autoimmunity and transplant rejection. We have $5,000,000 dollars from national funding and commercial funding and a company now to translate this from bench to bedside. Now, this is just one personal story. Behind those doors there are hundreds of those stories. If we move out from Building 4 and the Science Faculty, across the university there are thousands of these stories. What student currently enrolled in a degree would not want to live these stories, be immersed in this culture and be inspired to potentially make a difference? That’s the first reason. I promised you two. I promised you two. Now, historically, recently and currently, humankind tends to ignore the metaphorical elephant in the room. Here are a couple of examples to show you what I mean. We’re very reticent to believe that we live in a volatile, uncertain, chaotic, ambiguous world, and I would argue that those of us in the so-called hard sciences are perhaps the most reticent to do so. Think about the world in which students currently live, and the workplace that they will enter. Our society is now characterised by liquid modernity. The parameters and components of society are changing at such a fast rate that its members don’t have time to assimilate new information and changes into habits, routine, paradigms and dogmas. Information now comes in sound bytes; students can get the answers they seek immediately, so who is the student and who is the teacher? Students can decide which information – which knowledge – they will access, they will contextualise. They can also participate in the creation of new knowledge through posts on Wikipedia. So the information they’re receiving is chaotic and unplanned. On top of this, we have the uncertainty and ambiguity that comes from a fearful, perplexing, pluralistic world. So, how does traditional teaching stack up to this? We’re moving from a world of problems – problems that require speed, analysis and elimination of uncertainty towards a world of dilemmas that require patience, sense making and engagement with society. We have absolutely no idea the type of dilemmas that our students will face once they’re out there in the workplace. We need to put method ahead of content and breadth ahead of depth to prepare our students. I think importantly we have to put relevant assessment ahead of traditional assessment. How many of you have gone to your supervisor in Week 1, been given five centimetres – I’m being conservative here – and been told to come back in 11 weeks and you will sit a closed-book exam? We really need to question what is the worth of having students rote learn – for instance, the 10 steps involved in antigen presentation – if that information is going to be transient and carry no legacy? Now, in terms of universities, the distinction of universities between higher education providers is the provision of teaching and learning that is directly related to scholarship, and generally that’s research. However, the so-called teaching-research nexus is still quite poorly defined, and teaching and learning and research are often seen as mutually exclusive and competing entities. So we require a curriculum change. Now, a research-inspired curriculum doesn’t simply involve flexing the academic egos, for want of a better word, and giving a lecture where you present your research. It needs to be more holistic. Subject content is obviously very important. But, and once again I turn to the hard sciences, we’re very guilty of building a hierarchy. Students can’t possibly access knowledge about B before they’ve learned A. In this revised curriculum, students can access M. They can access subject content that they feel is relevant to them, and relevant to their future career. Once they’ve accessed M, if they need to access Z, go ahead. Then if they need to come back and find out a little bit about A, they’re free to do that. So I think we need to move away from our reliance upon pre-requisites and our hierarchical structure of knowledge. The second thing that we need to do is we need to orientate them with respect to research. We need to show them the processes by which knowledge is constructed, and particularly in the hard sciences and my particular discipline immunology, is how those dogmas are then proven false and knowledge is reconstructed. We need to facilitate research where students are actively engaged in writing and discussing papers. They are accessing the Internet; they are trying to dissect what is true and what is of questionable truth. They are engaging in what might be the moral and ethical consequences of scientific discoveries. Finally, as a culmination of these three factors, they get to live the research. They get to design their experiments, which they may perform literally in the laboratory, or they may receive in silico data. To me, what we’ve done historically when we’ve looked at a research-integrated curriculum is we’ve expanded the subject content, the research-driven section, and we’ve had a [inaudible] of academics talk about the research that they’re doing. I believe that we need to take a more holistic and encompassing approach and engage our undergraduate students in the true culture of research. So let’s now, just to finish up, maybe take a look at blue skies, or pale blue dots, and let’s hone in on our university. Hone in on your own classroom, hone in on one student, say Mary Smith. How good would it be if UTS was renowned for producing graduates that from day one on the job could deal with a volatile, uncertain, chaotic and ambiguous world? Regardless of whether they spent two years, two days, two years, or two decades in science, regardless of whether their universe saw them become perhaps a dentist, even a plumber, an antique dealer, or maybe even the next pope? Thank you.