Research Creates Education

by Matt Ayres | 5/22/01 5:00am

To the Editor:

As one of the faculty who was interviewed for the Student Assembly report on research and teaching at Dartmouth College, I have read the report, and its coverage in The Dartmouth, with great interest. I commend the authors for addressing this important issue. However, I was disappointed that the discussions have not included better development of the arguments for why undergraduate education is enhanced when faculty have active research programs. I cannot speak to the situation for other disciplines, but at least in biology, the benefits of faculty research are so great that it seems a requisite for excellence in education. The benefits include:

  1. Faculty that conduct research tend to have a command of current developments in their field and are therefore able to continually integrate new knowledge into their courses.

  2. Science is a process of acquiring understanding -- not a list of facts about nature. Therefore, a quality education must cultivate an understanding of the process by which scientific understanding matures (e.g., how interesting questions are asked and answered and how new knowledge is integrated with existing knowledge). Indeed, many disciplines are growing so quickly that the factual details we can teach today are less important for the success of our students tomorrow than an understanding of the process of science. Faculty who are themselves actively engaged in scientific inquiry are well qualified to teach this process.

  3. Students have the opportunity to gain valuable experience by working as research assistants.

This permits students to make informed decisions about career tracks that involve research, is increasingly critical for gaining admission to top tier graduate programs, is of benefit for students who will be applying to medical school and generally strengthens the professional credentials of our students regardless of their eventual careers.

  1. Students tend to have increased success in developing an honor's thesis when they can work within the intellectual and logistical infrastructure that is provided by active faculty research programs. The experience of conducting independent research is consistently cited by our students as a highlight of their undergraduate experience at Dartmouth and a foundation for their continued professional development. "The Dartmouth Journal of Undergraduate Science" (recently recognized in the premiere international journal,

"Nature") is one manifestation of the quantity and quality of research conducted by our undergraduates. Further evidence lies in the remarkable number of undergraduate research projects that are presented at professional meetings and published in refereed journals.

Faculty research has been contributing to Dartmouth education for many decades (more than 50 years in Biology). Vigorous faculty research is among the reasons for Dartmouth's history of success in undergraduate education, and is more important today than ever because of the accelerating growth of knowledge and the increasing relevance of that knowledge to society. There are several arguments for why an institute of higher education should be involved in research, but it is logical that the College should actively cultivate excellence in research simply based on its benefits for undergraduate education.

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