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  Professional Perspectives and Approaches
  By David N. Rahni, Ph.D.
   
 

I.                  Higher Education: An Academic Curriculum based Perspective

 Higher Education has been undergoing transformation since the 1960’s. Such transformation has, however, been accelerated in the past few years by diminishing resources, technological growth, and shifts in student demographics. Institutional change is further influenced by the rapid increase in the volume of information and its costly delivery modes. Cost has particularly impacted private institutions where the tuition and fees average four times higher when compared to public schools nationwide. Yet, ironically, one may observe a reversal in the missions of public vs. private institution in that the latter is increasingly serving the financially and educationally needy students. On the other hand, public institutions are more dependent on tuition and fees revenues than before and more accountable to public scrutiny. An increasing pattern of working and adult students will make change even more inevitable. Philanthropy, endowment, and other fund raising endeavors have also been influenced by shifts in tax laws, among many other parameters.   

Change is generally perceived by some with a sense of uneasiness. Others, however, consider such shifts in paradigm to be a window of opportunity to further refine, streamline, and optimize the curriculum, and institutional processes and practices, thereby better serving the students, the scholastic circles and the broader community. Such an outcome is consistent with institutional Mission Statements and Strategic Agendas, particularly when everyone concerned including the faculty members are active participant from the outset.

Academic transformation clearly requires effective leadership. Ideally, such leadership should emerge from within the faculty in recognition of exemplary academic contributions. At the center of academic transformation is perpetual curriculum assessment and reform, particularly core curriculum and honors reform. This is so pivotal in ensuring that institutions of higher learning continue to effectively serve their constituencies, on one hand, and be prepared to lead societal and professional challenges, on the other. Specifically, the driving forces for change can be categorized into external or internal parameters as follows:

External Parameters:

·  Demographics of students

·  Increase in working, commuting, and adult student population

·  Accelerated scientific and technological breakthroughs

·  Unpredictability with international student populations due to sudden political,

    or economic changes of their countries

·  Exponential increase in the volume of knowledge, information, and modes of

    dissemination; auxiliary instructional enterprises

·  Frequent job changes and shifts in the scope of responsibilities in one’s lifetime

·  Depletion of Federal and State student financial resources

·  Competition from alternative providers (e.g., University of Phoenix)

·   Lack of general preparation, and interests by freshman students in the sciences

Internal Parameters:

·  Challenges in financial and fundraising efforts

·  Tuition increases, particularly for private institutions

·  The need and merit for perpetual education  

·  Mode and medium of delivery of higher education

II.         General Education in the 21st Century

    Proactive and progressive institutions have aggressively embarked on a quest to accommodate change to their advantage. When successfully implemented, this should contribute toward quality academic programs, prudent financial stability, positive image and reputation, and diverse student population profiles that truly represent the communities an institution serves. As one should recognize, change, a multi-dimensional phenomenon, requires a multi-jurisdictional approach.

 Academic change, however, brought about by the faculty as integral participants, is at the cornerstone of an institutional change. A properly assessed quality academic curriculum, subjected to continuous refinement, will reflect the latest discoveries and theories in a given discipline; it also incorporates appropriate pedagogy, technologies and delivery tools. At the heart of an academic agenda, there exist a truly integrated Core Curriculum and a continuous assessment mechanism by which a Liberal Arts and Sciences faculty group would ensure it remains up-to-date and maintains a balance between classical learning and contemporary thinking. A successful core curriculum will integrate teaching, research and service in a Liberal Arts and Sciences College into a flagship theme. Such a theme should balance the dual mission of the College by providing general education for all university students complementing their academic majors courses and offering the highest quality specialized education to a host of academic majors within the College. Currently, most core curriculums are not fully integrated, nor do they include the optimal use of technological and information breakthroughs as well as they should. A dynamic process committed to by the faculty and overseen by effective academic leadership assures that an institution provides its students with a quality general education, which is responsive to the latest needs and merits of the broader civic and professional community. An academically sound core curriculum will ensure that outgoing students are versed with the humanistic values and classics, appreciate the various global cultural heritage and able to meet the community challenges of the 21st Century. Moreover, the students are equipped with intellectual and technological capabilities that are so necessary to succeed throughout their professional and personal quests, irrespective of the profession they pursue in life. Such scientific, technological and communication breakthroughs would inevitably influence our everyday lives and the foundation of democracy on which our society is established on. So, in a sense, a sound core curriculum provides a common ground for dialog by today’s students who will be tomorrow’s decision-makers in the community. Lastly, a progressive core curriculum should properly address issues such as, but not limited to: multiculturalism, diversity, global and international perspectives, scientific and technological literacy, natural resource appreciation and conservation, information acquisition and its integration and authentication, perpetual education, multi-jurisdictional team approaches, ethics, equity, economics, empowerment, communication skills and citizenry.  

In order to offer a successful core curriculum, the faculty should strive to excel in their teaching pedagogy, pedigree, cognitive development skills, scholarly endeavors, and service pursuits in an intra- and interdisciplinary fashion. In other words, exemplary empowered faculty would integrate the three components of her/his focus into one, to better serve the students, the academy, ant the society at-large. Another outcome of such transformation is the acquisition of special recognition for a college of arts and sciences (e.g., Phi Beta Kappa) and/or its specific majors. This in no way should be interpreted as increasing the number of core credit hours; on the contrary, faculty should critically examine the core to ensure that the number of credit hours could possibly decrease. Students would then be provided with the opportunity to take additional courses in their academic majors and minors and other non-traditional areas. The notion of possible reduction in the total number of credit hours needed for graduation should also be investigated thoroughly. Finally, this case study is consistent with the agenda of upcoming 81st Annual Meeting of the American Council on Education: The Academy in Motion.

 A.       Leadership Skills

 Regardless of the merit and urgent need for a modern curriculum, particularly core or honors curriculum, leadership skills are required to see it implemented successfully. Observing effective academic leaders as role models, I would strive to further bolster my leadership skills needed to articulate an academic vision, and see it realized through motivating and empowering faculty, building consensus among all institutional constituencies, and consideration of the financial implications. Moreover, I would strive to learn about crisis prevention and management, and conflict resolution in the academic communities of learners.

B.         Assessment

 No core curriculum, or an honors program reform is sustainable unless it is assessed critically to assure its impact on a college of arts and sciences and the institution is tangibly measured. A set of qualitative and quantitative outcome indicators must, therefore, be selected to assess the old and the new core curriculums. This will in turn enable us to assess the outcomes against statement of mission.   

Efforts should be made to propose a common THEME that integrates a core or an honors program and its majors on an intra- and interdisciplinary basis by utilizing a concept such as environment, natural resources, nature, science and society. Such a theme should ideally integrate with the missions of professional schools as well. For instance, the notion of sustainable development that integrates concepts on earth, ecology, environment, energy, education, ethics, economics, equity, aesthetics and empowerment, could be a common theme by which the goal, instructions across the curriculum, may be achieved. I hypothesize that there is a correlation between a quality general education and a university’s success in areas such as admissions, recruitment, retention, image identity and reputation, and alumni support.  

III.           Teaching Philosophy 

My philosophical approach to teaching is a learner based, and student-centered one where every student can and should learn. However, the depth, breadth, pedagogical processes and expected cognitive requirements by which a science major may learn, might be somewhat different from those of a liberal studies (core courses) or a non-science major. A successful teacher should then be able to optimize the pedagogy necessary in order to address the needs of, and accommodate an appropriate student population in a class, thereby achieving the mission of a specific course in the context of the discipline and the university mission. The learner-based approach is a two-way avenue in that when executed successfully, would immediately result in students reciprocating by teaching us about the same exact topics and beyond.  

This pivotal goal requires communication and interpersonal skills. Regardless of the class size, its students’ diversity and intellectual heterogeneity and its mission, though, the foremost pre-requisite for a successful cumulative outcome, is the establishment of a professional teacher-student relationship where all students empowered feel integral players in their education and accountable for their efforts. This necessitates the understanding, respect and appreciation of diversity and inter-culturalism at its broadest sense, at its broad foundation. Moreover, recognizing each student’s strengths and talents, and special needs if any, must be the first priority in a teacher’s agenda. Establishing personable contact with each student during office hours or via email early in the semester and addressing each with his/her name would not only give a student self confidence, but would also encourage a student to excel beyond his/her apparent potential by making extra efforts. For instance, during the first session of every course I teach, I pass a questionnaire asking my students to tell me confidentially about their prior science courses, their strengths, their perceived barriers, their academic major and status, what they expect to get out of the course, and their ultimate academic and professional goals. I would then promise them to remember their full names and other information provided to me by the end of the first week. By and large, they feel so proud to be treated with such personal attention to details. 

Ever increasingly, we are faced with the use of technology, virtual lab simulation and Internet based telecommunication resources as potential aids to instruction. My view is to assess the need and merit of each of such potential instructional support on an individual basis and for a specific course. Then, if found meritorious by a peer faculty group, a department would be able to utilize such auxiliary resources as instructional aid. This is particularly worth looking into for K-12 and college science courses for non-science majors. 

Perpetual learning is the mission of a college education. When this is achieved successfully, a science major should be able to continue to remain scientifically competitive throughout his/her life by continuing education, in light of rapid scientific and technological breakthroughs. Besides, a chemistry department must also poise itself to provide continuing education courses to chemistry professionals and teachers. On the other hand, a non-science major must be provided with the basics to instill in him/her scientific literacy, if not then scientific appreciation, at a minimum. This is so increasingly critical since our citizens must decide on societal issues that are intertwined with science and technology. There are few of us who can read, write and play music beyond the rudimentary level, yet the majority of us do certainly appreciate music. We as science educators are obliged to instill the same outcome among our non-science and liberal studies students.  This would in turn ensure that tomorrow’s citizens would exercise their democratic franchises wisely as science, technology and communication ever increasingly impact our society and our lifestyle. We should, however, reexamine the science requirement for teacher certification in the sciences to ensure they remain current, in depth and breadth and rigorous. In almost all other countries, a high school chemistry teacher would go through all the requirements for a chemistry degree and minor in education; in the US, we seem to have reversed the priority. 

As to our chemistry majors, we should recognize that an increasing number of them might pursue other academic and professional goals in life. This is consistent with for instance the fact that very few philosophy or political science majors opt to become philosophers or politicians! We should, therefore, train our students as critical thinkers who can apply their understanding of chemical science principles to any real life challenge. In all our students, we should instill a balance between materialism and the critical contribution an individual should make to the society during her/his lifetime.   

The above statement as practiced by this educator over the years, brings many specific cases to memory. I would, however, present a sample of such cases, each of which deals with a specific student population. 

Case One:

Early in my teaching career at Pace, I had a freshman student from a South Bronx high school, had established a business, had become a black belt recipient in Karate, and nearly ten years thereafter returned to college to earn a science degree. Well, in spite of his most sincere efforts that fall, and my daily tutorial sessions with him, he earned a grade of “F”! Later in that spring, I found him at my doorstep unexpectedly, as I always follow “an open door” policy. I immediately thought he was going to present excuses and might be seeking reconsideration, but soon found out I was wrong.  He sat down, uncomfortable at his lack of apparent success, and asked me to guide him to succeeding in earning his dream. I set out a long-term strategy, identified various instructional supports such as library, tutorial resources, peer groups, and made myself available between that point and the following fall. He again took my General Chemistry I & II, earned grades of “B+” for both, and went on to finish his requirements for a B.S. in Biological Sciences with a strong minor in Chemistry. Throughout his education at Pace, he regularly offered free tutorials to students. Finally, he earned two doctorate degrees in health related fields from Oregon where he currently resides!

 Case Two:

I had a visiting student of sixteen years of age in the summer of 1987, who took my General Chemistry I before settling in an “Ivy League” school. He and his parents soon realized that he could get the same quality education at Pace where class sizes are much smaller and students are treated with a higher degree of courtesy by personable faculty and staff. So, he stayed on at Pace where he later participated in my research on the Development of an Immobilized Enzyme Electrode for Sulfite Determination, and completed requirements in Biochemistry, Biology and Mathematics, earning his degree summa cum laude at the age of 20! He went on to earn his M.D. at New York Medical College at the age of 24. When I was on my sabbatical leave at the University of Oxford, UK, I facilitated his admission into Pharmacology where he earned a Ph.D. at the age 26. He is currently completing his residency in Radiology at Harvard/ Massachusetts General Hospital. My association with this and many other students go as far beyond their graduation and I cherish such relationships. 

Case Three:

As an assistant professor in the 80’s I found out that our Art students were fearful of satisfying their core science requirements with existing chemistry for non-science major courses. This seems to be an endemic challenge among many if not all non-science majors in that they may not see the relevance between science courses and their academic majors and professional inclinations. Recognizing the concept of contextual instruction, I developed “Chemistry of Art” where I still taught them the main objectives of core science requirements, yet I made it relevantly interesting by utilizing examples of art preservation, authentication, archaeology, art materials and safety, restoration, photography and theory of colors. I have ever since been able to develop skills which enable me to effectively address various groups of students and public audiences by presenting relevant “real life” examples, thereby enhancing their enthusiasms. One of the comments that consistent appears in my students’ evaluations is how I effectively present relevant life examples to make intricate scientific topics more comprehensible. Then, I identified several talents among the undecided students who became science majors and went on to become physicians, dentists and research scientists. For instance, a nursing student was advised to become a pre-medical student. She later earned her pediatrics credentials from one of the most renowned medical schools in the nation. 

Case Four:

Pace University is ranked among the top three institutions in the nation for its LL.M. Environmental Law Program. I was approached by the current Law School Dean, Richard Ottinger, formerly, an eight-term member of the House of Representative, to co-develop a science based course for such student population, most of whom were practicing attorneys in the field. A course titled, “Scientific and Technological Issues in Environmental Law” was developed where students learn the scientific approach, and science as the basis for environmental legislation, monitoring and compliance, enforcement and litigation.  

Case Five:

The master’s program in Environmental Science, which serves students with various educational, professional backgrounds and outlooks, has been rated as a big success! Since its inception, program development and securing internal and external approval have been a primary focus. It draws upon intellectual teaching and research resources across the curriculum. I am directly involved in several courses, and have led the development of the rest of the curriculum. In addition to Environmental Science students, there are currently ten LL.M., advanced undergraduate and graduate Education students enrolled in several courses. 

Case Six:

I have served as a teaching/research assistant for approximately six years during my graduate studies. When completing my undergraduate studies, I concurrently taught English as a Second Language, Science to middle and high school students and later managed the Foreign Language Department of the same school of nearly a thousand students. I am quite familiar with pedagogical approaches in other countries, where resources are extremely scarce, yet the enthusiasms and achievement in the science courses will remain high through high school and beyond. For instance, data supports the fact the US students rank among the top in science throughout K-7 worldwide, yet their ranking drops at the bottom of the stack by the time they complete high school. This is supported by the International Chemistry Olympiad, where East European and even certain Middle Eastern countries have ranked above the US team over the past several decades. If a priority, we can form a coalition in the State comprised of educators from the university and high schools to train students who would succeed in national and international competitions. 

I have taught chemistry since 1986 at Pace University. My students’ achievements have remained my inspiration in life. I continue to maintain communication with many of my former chemistry and non-science students. I was recently recognized as the 1997-98 recipient of Kenan Award for Teaching Excellence, which became possible through nominations by alumni and peers.

 IV.      Administrative and Leadership Perspectives, and Experiences

Several years ago I led the development of our intensely interdisciplinary master’s program in Environmental Science based on a series of marketing and curriculum surveys; I also served as its first Director. The program, through identifying commonality in approach to tackling environmental and natural resource challenges, brings a rather apparently divergent group of faculty from all walks of academic life together. This was not an easy task, as supported by pre-conceived notions of many of us who work in academia. Furthermore, there were historical communication barriers and departmental rivalries to overcome. This program in its second year of inception has nearly twenty majors enrolled in it; over thirty applicants are currently in the pool for 1999-2000. My peers comment on occasion that I have truly acquired the skills for building consensus. Throughout life, I have learned to be a good listener, avoid making judgment pre-maturely, focusing on positive aspects, thereby promoting them, while avoiding dogma. At some point when it is logically necessary, and after having gathered all pertinent information industriously, I am then decisive on issues for the advancement of a common objective. 

My peers comment on my promptness and attentiveness to details when it comes to achieving a goal. Let me give you a simple example: As a faculty, we are required to submit an annual faculty report to the Dean’s office in May. After my first year at Pace, I have maintained a folder and a computer file whereby I generate such report and send it to the Dean’s office before I receive several general reminder memos! I am skillful in streamlining processes, thereby avoiding the need to “reinvent the wheel” by utilizing multi-tasks efficient approaches. Furthermore, I have over the years led the instrumentation donation to Pace University that has cumulatively amounted to over $200K.  

I have also provided leadership roles on many issues of institutional importance. Curriculum reform, core curriculum, diversity, faculty governance, program and institutional accreditation, assessment, strategic agenda, inter-culturalism, technology and its potential impact on university missions (e.g., distance learning and on-line courses), and faculty/administrator searches highlight some of such activities. 

It is, however, at the community and professional levels that I have truly demonstrated my administrative and leadership roles. I would summarize some of my main roles herein: 

Several years ago, together with a group of colleagues from corporate, elected town officials, and NGOs representatives, we founded Partners for Sustainable Development in the Lower Hudson Valley. It’s a multi-jurisdictional partnership that tackles assessing quality of life in respective communities with a multi-disciplinary approach. It recognizes that the Earth’s carrying capacity is limited, and further, our natural resources are finite—therefore, everyone should strive to balance life’s consumption pattern and economic development, thereby “meeting the needs of current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The partnership has had regular meetings, workshops and symposia, and has involved itself in a number of community based projects. 

Parallel to above activity, I have been fortunate to work with a number of colleagues from NYS Bar Association, NY Academy of Sciences, Columbia University, and Leagues of Conservation Women and Voters. This past June we held a one-day Conference on NYS Economic Development and Climate Change. Specific recommendation were made to the NY State Government, schools, businesses and residences through a series of resolutions by promoting environmentally friendly technologies and practices and trading carbon dioxides. There is a follow up mechanism to assess its impact. Most recently, I have been appointed Member of the Steering Committee to organize the next Annual Rene DuBos Conference on the Automobile, Society and the Global Economy.  

In recognition of my on going contributions to ACS, I was asked to serve as the General Chair and Host of the 31st Middle Atlantic Regional Meeting of ACS several years ago. I immediately set up a diverse Steering Committee comprised of colleagues from industry, academe, and government. The meeting of three hundred presentations and other events, held on May 27-30, 1997 at Pace University, drew nearly eight hundred registrants, and was judged by many ACS National Board of Directors including ACS Chair of the Board Dr. Joan Shield, to be highly successful for its quality, variety and financial success. We exceeded the initially set fund raising target by 300%. We even set up a chemistry scholarship fund at Pace University. 

Recently, I was elected as the 1999 Chair-Elect, 2000 Chair of the American Chemical Society’s New York Section. The Section is where the ACS was conceived late last century, and has membership coverage of over five thousand. It is comprised of fifty committees with over 150 super active volunteers and a central office. ACS is the largest professional society of 160,000 professional devoted to one discipline. As the Jury Chair of Nichols Medal, the oldest chemistry award in the Nation, and the Chair of its Symposium, I completed a successful fund raising from corporations to cover the expenses of over five hundred participants in the program and the banquet on March 15, 1999. While Professor Samuel Danishefsky was the 1999 award recipient, the keynote speakers were Professors Andrew Myers of Harvard, Henry Wasserman of Yale, Paul Wender of Stanford, and Julius Rebeck of Scripps Research Institute.  

Given the opportunity, one will be able to continue to build further on the above track records, thereby contributing toward the betterment of the Academy and the Society. I would be delighted to further elaborate on these and other topics of mutual interests, and share my views of our roles as educators in shaping education, environment, and quality of life in the twenty-first Century.

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