ROCK DOC - Undergrads a cause for hope

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I've seen the future of American science and engineering. And, in my humble opinion, it looks very bright.

From time to time the media tell us that American education simply isn't working. Reports can make it seem that public schools -- and universities, too -- are wasteful, dysfunctional, and produce students who can neither read nor write, let alone do science and math.

But I work at a large, state-run university and I see little evidence of those claims. Let me tell you what I do know about, what I see first hand.

Recently students majoring in all the sciences and engineering here at Washington State University presented the results of their research to both faculty and industry representatives from outside the Ivory Tower. Yes, I said that the undergraduate students -- some of them 19-years old -- presented the results of their own research to faculty, staff, their peers and industry representatives.

The next generation of nerds is more involved in research work than any I've known to this date. They don't just sit passively in class taking notes, but broaden their horizons and deepen their minds by pursuing real research work in faculty labs on questions ranging from steel characteristics to atmospheric pollution to onion rot.

It's quite a sight to see a crowd of 300 doing the same basic exchanges -- explanation and a bit of argument -- that happens at national professional meetings where 55-year-olds explain and defend their research to peers. The ballroom where we held this event was crowded with people, the noise level high due to all the intense conversations. It's all obviously good practice for the students, and the research being done by them simply puts to shame the education some of us old-time gals had years back. And that means the next generation can benefit society sooner in their professional careers.

The basic quality of all American universities is shown by the fact that many students from overseas still come here for their education. They vote with their feet -- and some of them stay to contribute to our society as scientists, engineers, doctors and more.

One of the areas in which we Americans have long excelled is basic research in science and engineering. We have been the go-to nation for computing technology and software, obviously, but also for a host of other technical fields like biotech science that allows us to change DNA for useful purposes and geological engineering techniques that allow us to explore for and extract oil from the deep Earth with the least impact on the environment.

Recent years, of course, have surely been tough. It's easy to be weary of the stories on the nightly news, to be afraid of the economic stresses our nation is going through. But I honestly believe the kids of today (if I may be forgiven for calling college students 'kids') have all that it takes and more to compete globally in technical fields. They are being taught to think and to do, not to recite -- and that's to our great advantage as a society.

True, American universities are under major financial stresses. But I know first hand American universities are still doing good work, day-in and day-out. The results are clear in the research I see being done not just by faculty and graduate students, but by teenagers who are throwing themselves into technical life.

While I was helping with the event that recently occurred here, two parents and their daughter came up to me. The daughter is admitted to attend WSU this next fall and she has interests in majoring in a technical field. It's fair to say they were blown away by the event, because it made it clear both what a great education can be had at public university and how serious some people in the upcoming generation are about their intellectual and professional lives.

I don't really understand economics, but I do know contributions to economic competitiveness by scientists and engineers are very real. And we here in the Ivory Tower are raising a good crop, indeed, to replace ourselves so the nation can climb still higher.

E. Kirsten Peters is a native of the rural Northwest, but was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. A library of past Rock Doc columns is available at rockdoc.wsu.edu. This column is a service of the College of Sciences at Washington State University.

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