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At Small Colleges : Scientists: A Crisis in the Making

July 14, 1986|THOMAS H. MAUGH II | Times Science Writer

By any standard, Corwin Hansch is a productive scientist.

He and his colleagues have developed several thousand complex equations that have been used by drug and chemical companies to design cancer drugs, antibiotics, insecticides, plant growth hormones, pesticides and blood pressure regulators.

For such work, Hansch is cited in the scientific literature even more often than seven of the 10 most-cited Nobel Laureates in chemistry. From 1965 to 1978, a period during which more than a million scientists published research papers, he was one of the 300 most-cited authors. And since 1979, his papers in scientific journals have been cited an average of 779 times per year.

None of that would be surprising except that Hansch is not a faculty member at Caltech, UCLA or MIT.

Liberal Arts College

Instead, he is Carnegie professor of chemistry at Pomona College in Claremont, a liberal arts school with only 1,325 students, all undergraduates.

Hansch also is a part of a little-noticed crisis in science education in the nation's small colleges, which employ nearly 70% of all science teachers in the country.

Science education in such small colleges is coming under increasing attack for "serious deficiencies," including having many faculty members who are uninspired and who teach material that is out of date. Such criticism comes at a time when fewer and fewer students--at universities as well as at small colleges--are studying science. At the same time, the smaller colleges are having increasing trouble recruiting faculty.

Such problems have all but obscured the fact that science teachers at smaller colleges as a group long have published more papers per research dollar than their better-known counterparts in the universities.

Crunch in Funding

But now, some fear, all that may change because of a forthcoming crunch in federal funding for research and science education. And despite a recent National Science Foundation call for Washington to more than double its funding for undergraduate science education--to more than $100 million by 1989--scientists like Hansch foresee severe problems. One major reason is the steadily rising cost of scientific instruments, which is expected to grow by 50% by the end of this decade.

Such a financial crunch may well prompt the chemical industry to pour large sums into the small colleges, thereby positioning itself to exert a strong influence on undergraduate science education throughout the country--as it already has done at larger universities.

What makes Hansch's achievements all the more remarkable is that he must spend at least twice as much time teaching as scientists at larger, research-oriented institutions. And he has no graduate students to grade the papers for those courses, no graduate students to teach the laboratory sections of the courses and no graduate students to carry out his research and to co-author papers.

"Hansch is a hallmark individual because of the example he sets for researchers at other undergraduate institutions," said chemist Michael Doyle of Trinity University.

Hansch recently became the first recipient of the American Chemical Society Award for Research at Undergraduate Institutions, an award created to draw attention to the fact that there are dozens of scientists at undergraduate schools with credentials as impressive as Hansch's.

But a general lack of recognition is only one problem facing scientists at small colleges.

Increasingly, they are being criticized for the quality of their teaching and for their failure to do sufficient research. Some of the harshest criticism came in a recent report prepared for the influential National Science Foundation that said undergraduate education in science, mathematics and engineering contains "serious deficiencies."

'Tedious and Dull'

In particular, the report said, laboratory instruction is often "uninspired, tedious and dull," and that faculty, courses and curricula are frequently out of date. Many of these problems arise, it concluded, because a significant proportion of the science faculty at the nation's 1,500 undergraduate institutions are not carrying out research.

"Science is not a good spectator sport," according to chemist Jerry Mohrig of Carleton College. "You don't remain a good teacher unless you are professionally active."

But such increasing demands for more research are making it harder for the smaller colleges to recruit faculty, especially in disciplines like physics, according to Alvin Hudson, chairman of the physics department at Occidental College. "Given the choice between a university and a college, a physicist is going to go to the larger school because he knows the opportunities for conducting research will be much greater.

Ironically, what has attracted science students to the smaller institutions is often what can make life difficult for the science teachers.

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