Monthly Archives: August 2018

A Fork in the Road: Time to Re-think the Future of STEM Graduate Education

“Rather than squeeze everyone into preordained roles, my goal has always been to foster an environment where the players can grow as individuals and express themselves creatively within a team structure” –Phil Jackson (1)

Recently, I was reading the PECOP blog “Paradigm Shifts in Teaching Graduate Physiology” by Dr. Andrew Roberts.  His discussion focused on how we need to change the way physiology is taught to graduate students as technology has evolved.  But, one particular line caught my eyes as I was preparing my blog:  “if it was good enough for Galileo, it is good enough for me.”   Many university faculty members believe the “If it was good enough for Galileo, it is good enough for me” approach is the major issue with the current biomedical graduate student training system, which stands at a crossroad and is threatening its own future if appropriate corrections are not made (2, 3).

The document I read for this blog, Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century (4) is an updated version of the report published in 1995 (5).  It is rather large (174 total pages) and contains information on various topics about the current status of STEM graduate education and a call for systematic change. I will limit my discussion to the current status of the PhD training system and recommendations for changes in the programs.

Issues at the heart: Gap between the Great Expectation and Hard Reality

Both the 1995 and the current documents list several issues associated with the STEM graduate training programs in the U.S.  However, the common thread that runs through both documents is associated with the gap between how our graduate students are trained and what has been happening in the job market.  The current STEM graduate program still is designed with the general expectation that students will pursue a career in academia as a tenure-track faculty member at a research institution.  However:

  1. The majority of growth in the academic job market has come from part-time positions, adjunct appointments, and full-time non-tenure-track positions (i.e. instructors, lecturers, research associates) rather than tenure-track positions in research-intensive institutions.
  2. The employment trend for STEM PhDs is shifting away from academia to non-academic positions.

The gap in the expectation of the training programs and the reality of job market creates several problems, including:

  1. Those who wish to pursue a career in academia often require a longer time to secure permanent employment and often work in positions that under-employ them (i.e. part-time, non-tenure track) and/or under-utilize their training (i.e. positions that do not require a PhD).
  2. Graduates who pursue non-academic positions, especially in the private sector, lack adequate preparation to enter their positions and become successful.

Many non-academic employers have voiced concerns that current STEM education is no longer acceptable for the current job market, as it does not provide sufficient training to make students more attractive and versatile to be employed outside of academia, which is becoming more international and diverse.  In particular, employers are concerned that current STEM graduates lack skills in areas such as:

  1. Communication
  2. Teaching and mentoring
  3. Problem solving
  4. Technology application
  5. Interdisciplinary teamwork
  6. Business decision making
  7. Leadership
  8. The ability to work with people from diverse backgrounds in a team setting

Changes needed for the system: Let students discover their destiny

The major change needed in the current STEM education system is that we need to let students figure out which career path is for them and provide appropriate training opportunities, rather than trying to force them to fit into one mold. Phil Jackson, whom I quoted earlier, writes: “Let each player discover his own destiny. One thing I’ve learned as a coach is that you can’t force your will on people.” (1). Jackson goes on to say: “On another level, I always tried to give each player the freedom to carve out a role for himself within the team structure.  I’ve seen dozens of players flame out and disappear not because they lacked talent but because they couldn’t figure out how to fit into the cookie-cutter model of basketball that pervades the NBA.”   We need to foster a graduate training environment that encourages each student to discover their role without any pressure, stigma, or discouragement.

Dr. Keith Yamamoto from the University of California San Francisco says that graduate training needs to be student-centered so that graduates can find their roles and meet the needs of the society (3). Faculty mentors have the responsibility of training students so that students become successful in what they choose to do.  Faculty mentors, academic departments, and institutions also need to make a concerted effort to provide opportunities for students to develop additional skills necessary to become successful in what they choose to do.  This includes teaching, especially if they want to work in a teaching-intensive institution (like the one in which I work). Faculty mentors may fear that allowing students to work on skills unrelated to the research area may hinder student success.  They may also fear that students serving as graduate teaching assistants may extend the time needed to complete their degree.  However, students need opportunities to develop these other skills, along with discipline-specific skills to become competitive in the job market and competent employees.  Again, the focus needs to be on the students and what they want to pursue, as well as what is needed for them to succeed after they walk out of the laboratory.  And, we need to trust students that they will find their paths on their own.  Dr. Yamamoto concludes his seminar by saying: “Inform/empower students to make appropriate career decision…. Students will get it right.” (3)

References and additional resources:

  1. Jackson P, Delehanty H (2013). Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success (Penguin, New York).
  2. Alberts B, Kirschner MW, Tilghman S, Vermus H (2014) Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaw. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 111(16):5773-5777.
  3. Yamamoto K (2014) Time to rethink graduate and postdoc education.
  4. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (2018) Graduate STEM Education for the 21st Century (The National Academics Press, Washington DC).
  5. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (1995) Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers (The National Academics Press, Washington DC).
Yass Kobayashi is an Associate Professor of Biological Sciences at Fort Hays State University in Hays, KS.   He teaches a human/mammalian physiology course and an upper-level cellular biology course to biology majors, along with a two-semester anatomy and physiology sequence to nursing and allied health students.   He received his BS in agriculture (animal science emphasis) with a minor in zoology from Southeast Missouri State University in 1991.  He received his MS in domestic animal reproductive physiology from Kansas State University in 1995.  After a brief stint at Oklahoma State University, he completed his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri-Columbia in domestic animal molecular endocrinology in 2000.  He was a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Arizona for 2 years and at Michigan State University for 4 years before taking an Assistant Professor of biology position at Delta State University in Cleveland, MS in 2006.  He moved to Fort Hays State in 2010 and has been with the institution ever since.
In Defense of the “Real” Thing

Society has moved into the age of virtual reality.  This computer-generated trend has wide-sweeping implications in the classroom.  Specific to anatomy, impressive 3D modeling programs permit students to dissect simulated bodies pixel by pixel.  It is exciting and often more cost-effective.  Virtual dissection, without doubt, can play a significant role in the current learning environment. However, as stated by Rene Descartes, “And so that they might have less difficulty understanding what I shall say about it, I should like those who are unversed in anatomy to take the trouble, before reading this, of having the heart of a large animal with lungs dissected before their eyes (for it is in all respects sufficiently like that of a man)”. This idea leads me to my argument; there is no replacement for the real thing.


We as teachers must incorporate a variety of learning tools for a student to truly understand and appreciate anatomical structure. Anatomical structure also needs to be related to physiological function. Is there anyone reading this that has not repeated the mantra “form determines function” hundreds or thousands of times during their teaching?  The logistical and financial restrictions to human cadavers, necessitates the frequent incorporation of chemically preserved specimens into our laboratory curriculum. Course facilitators often employ a cat or a pig as a substitute for the human body. I am not advocating against the use of preserved specimens or virtual programs for that matter (and kudos to my fellow facilitators who have learned the arduous techniques required to dissect a preserved specimen). However, it is my opinion that it is a time consuming assignment with limited educational end points. Not to mention the rising specimen costs and limited vendor options. The cost of a preserved cat is now ~$40, while the average cost of a live mouse is only ~$5. Two very important components necessary to understand the concept that form determines function are missing from preserved specimens (even cadavers). These two components are: texture and color. With respect to color, the tissues of preserved specimens are subtle variations of gray, completely void of the Technicolor show of the living organism. Further, texture differences are extremely difficult to differentiate in a preserved specimen. Compare this to a fresh or live specimen and the learning tools are innumerable. You might argue that mice are much smaller, but dissecting microscopes can easily enhance the dissection and in my experience far outweigh the noxious experience of dissecting a chemically preserved organism.


To further convince you of the value of dissecting fresh tissue I would like to present a couple of examples. First, why is the color of tissue important? One of the most important bodily pigments is hemoglobin. Hemoglobin, as we all know, is the pigment that gives blood its red color. Therefore the color of a tissue often reflects the level of the tissue vascularity and often (but of course not always) in turn the ability of that tissue to repair or regenerate. Simply compare the color of the patellar tendon (white) to the red color of the quadriceps. Muscles being highly vascularized have a much greater ability to regenerate than non-vascular connective tissue such as the patellar tendon. In addition, muscles contain myoglobin, a red protein very similar to hemoglobin. Two clear examples of teaching opportunities that would be missed with the traditional use of preserved specimens.


Texture is completely lost with chemical preservation as tissues become hardened and rubbery. My students are always blown away by the fact you can completely eliminate the overall structure of the brain by pressing it between their two fingers. The tactile experience of holding the delicate brain allows students to explore how form begets function begets pathology. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) has become a hot topic in our culture. We no longer see children riding bicycles without helmets, the National Football League has new rules regarding tackle technique and my 8-year-old soccer player is penalized for headers during game play. What better way to educate a new generation of students just how delicate nervous tissue is than by having them “squash” a mouse brain? Regardless, of the amazing skull that surrounds the brain and the important fluid in which it floats, a hit to the head can still result in localized damage and this tactile experience emphasizes this in a way no virtual dissection could ever accomplish.


Finally, I would like to discuss a topic close to my heart that does require a non-preserved large animal specimen. The function of arteries and veins is vastly different based on the structure of elastic or capacitance vessels, respectively. For example, the deer heart allows easy access to the superior or inferior vena cava (veins that are thin and easily collapsed) and the aorta (thick and elastic artery) permitting valuable teaching moments on vessel structural variability for divergent physiological function. These structures on a preserved specimen are usually removed just as they enter the heart making them very difficult to evaluate.


These are just some elementary examples. Numerous concepts can be enhanced with the added illustrations of texture and color. When presented with both options, my students always choose the fresh tissue!  The wonder and excitement of handling fresh tissue has become a hallmark of our Anatomy and Physiology course and is regularly mentioned as student’s favorite example of hands-on learning in the classroom.


I have to end this with a special shout-out to my dear lab adjunct Professor Elizabeth Bain MSN, RN. Liz has made access to deer heart and lungs an easy task for me.

April Carpenter, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the Health and Exercise Physiology Department at Ursinus College. She received her PhD in Molecular and Cellular Physiology at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center and completed two postdoctoral fellowships at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Her research interests include the molecular regulation of endothelial function and its impact on all phases of skeletal muscle injury.  Dr. Carpenter currently teaches Anatomy and Physiology, Research Methods and a new Pathophysiology course.
Paradigm Shifts in Teaching Graduate Physiology

From years of experience teaching physiology to graduate students, I found students learn best when they have a good grasp of basic concepts and mechanisms. As we are well aware, the lecture format was used to disseminate knowledge on various topics.  Students took notes and were expected to reinforce their knowledge by reading recommended texts and solving related questions that were assigned.  Some courses had accompanying laboratories and discussion sessions where students learned about applications and gained practical experience.  The term “active learning” was not in vogue, even though it was taking place in a variety of ways!  Successful teachers realized that when students were able to identify the learning issues and followed through by searching for what they needed to understand, this process enhanced learning.  The idea of a “flipped” classroom had not been described as such, but was occurring de facto in rudimentary ways with the ancillary activities that were associated with some courses.  As you are reading this, you are incorrect if you think it is an appeal to go back to the way things were.


By coincidence, one evening after work, I was listening to the radio about the story of a professor at an elite college.  My colleagues and I had just been discussing new teaching ideas and technologies!  As an acclaimed and accomplished educator he was surprised to learn that his students did not do as well as he expected on a national exam in comparison to other students being tested on the same subject. I was mesmerized and had to stop and listen to this teacher’s thoughts about how he changed his methods to improve student learning and their ability to apply knowledge.  This is also when I heard the expression, “if it was good enough for Galileo, it is good enough for me.”  This humorously illustrates an extreme case of someone who doesn’t want to incorporate new ideas, different knowledge and new developments.  As you are reading this, you are incorrect if you think it is an appeal to go back to the way things were.  Obviously, we can and do find new ways to teach, but this doesn’t mean abandoning methods that work.  In listening to debates on topics such as integrating the curriculum, we acknowledge that other systems also work if used properly.  However, they should be well thought-out and appropriate for the group of students you are teaching.  So, how does this apply to teaching graduate physiology to today’s students?


Creative teachers have always found a way to engage their students. From what I have come to understand, today’s students seem to prefer a classroom environment that combines lectures with some form of a multimedia presentation and exercises such as team-based learning, where they can interact with fellow students and instructors.  This keeps their attention and works well with students who grew up with technology.  While technology also makes it easier for instructors to make slides and use multimedia, care must be taken to avoid oversimplifying.  A tendency of modern media is to compress information into sound-bytes and that is a dangerous mindset for a graduate level course.


Instead of just acquiring knowledge for its own sake, today’s students want to learn what is relevant for their future endeavors.  In my opinion, it is very important to show them how and why what they are learning relates to practical “real world” applications.  I like to develop concepts, discuss mechanisms whenever possible, and show examples of how the knowledge is applied and useful.  A plus is that these students like to work cooperatively and enjoy problem solving as a group exercise with a common goal in mind.  However, in-class activities sometimes become too social and groups have to be kept on track.  Another pitfall stems from the fact that in many courses, lectures are recorded and notes are distributed in the form of a syllabus that student’s rely on as their sole source of material.  Too often, students copiously read the prepared notes and listen to the recorded lectures instead of more actively reviewing and connecting with the material that was presented.


The internet is a useful resource where information can easily be looked up.  While this is helpful, I find that they may miss the larger context even though it was presented in class.  This is where another comprehensive source of information such as a textbook (on-line or in print) can be used to reiterate material and reinforce what was discussed in class. Students would benefit more by using other resources to accompany notes and lectures. The “flipped” classroom works well if students come to class having prepared by reading, reviewing and analyzing the subject matter.  This type of preparation also makes lectures more interactive and enjoyable by fostering class discussion.  Therefore, I would conclude by stating it is the preparation by student and teacher that makes even the traditional lecture format more engaging and effective.

Andrew M. Roberts, MS, PhD is an Associate Professor in the Department of Physiology at the University of Louisville School of Medicine in Louisville, Kentucky.  He received his PhD in Physiology at New York Medical College and completed a postdoctoral training program in heart and vascular diseases and a Parker B. Francis Fellowship in Pulmonary Research at the University of California, San Francisco in the Cardiovascular Research Institute. His research focuses on cardiopulmonary regulatory mechanisms with an emphasis on neural control, microcirculation, and effects of local endogenous factors.  He teaches physiology to graduate, medical, and dental students and has had experience serving as a course director as well as teaching allied health students.