At the 2017 TAMEST Annual Conference, a panel of six leaders from higher education across the state gathered to discuss the strong forces of change affecting higher education in Texas and across the United States. Texas’ higher education system is in a unique position thanks to rapid population growth, changing demographics and a shifting focus in various industries.
The panel examined the sustainability of higher education from the perspective of their institutions, the state of Texas and the United States. Topics included: shifting financial models; technology’s impact on learning and the classroom; the increased importance of education regardless of economic status; and the political pressures to differentiate priorities and financing.
John Sharp, Chancellor, The Texas A&M University System
Some highlights from the conversation:
The Importance of Education
“Our biggest challenge with sustainability [in higher education] is in fact not just sustaining what we have, but getting a lot better than what we have today,” said David Daniel, Ph.D., of The University of Texas System. Daniel said both the people of Texas and legislators need to see the value of education. “There’s an opportunity here, and an important one for sustainability and that is: Higher Ed needs to get more involved in K-12 education, and doing everything we can to help them be successful,” Daniel said.
“Higher education is more important than it’s ever been,” said Gregory L. Fenves, Ph.D., of The University of Texas at Austin. “You look at our state, you look at our nation, you look at what’s happening globally, and it’s even more important that we get more of our students going to high-quality universities, getting those post-high school credentials in different forms.”
Texas’ Changing Demographic Landscape
“The disparities between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in higher education has grown over the past 40 years,” said Diana Natalacio, Ph.D., of The University of Texas at El Paso. “We have this huge responsibility given the changes in the demographics of Texas population. Sustainability of this state is going to require that that growing disparity be eliminated. We’ve got to educate more low-income and mostly-minority Hispanic students, because that’s where the population growth is.”
John Sharp of Texas A&M System emphasized that the future of Texas will depend on educating its people. “We have taken for granted our economics. We’ve built these huge empires on cattle, cotton, oil and gas and didn’t have so much to worry about it,” he said. But the next source of power in Texas is going to come from “human resources, not natural resources,” Sharp said, noting that the state has more 18- to 21-year olds than everywhere in the country with the exception of Provo, Utah. “Texas, particularly South Texas and the border and places like that, are where the future of Texas is going to be decided,” Sharp said, emphasizing how important education of those populations will be vital if the state is going to advance.
Sustaining Quality Research
The panel also emphasized the importance of quality research programs at Texas universities. Texas has three top-tier research universities—Texas A&M University, Rice University and The University of Texas at Austin—that are members of the Association of American Universities (AAU), and many others in the state have reached the highest level of Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education for research. But whether the state will continue to grow as a research destination depends in part on continued state and cultural support.
“The fundamental question for Texas and the country is: Are we going to be willing to invest in these institutions? And it’s not just about money, it’s also … about culture and belief,” said David Leebron, J.D., of Rice University. “My biggest fear is we’re losing some of our belief in the importance of research and the importance of science, and particularly fundamental inquiry in science.”
“Texas has made it a priority to create research,” said Robert Duncan of Texas Tech University System, noting the growth of research-based universities and the commitment the legislature has made to research funding. He continued on to say, "I think the thing we need to do to be able to make sure that the research successes that we've had... [is] that we sustain that funding...because... that is what makes it happen at least for those of us in the emerging research institutions." The panel as a whole emphasized that research and sustainable funding need to continue to be a priority.
“We’re in a period where there is tremendous technological innovation,” said Larry Faulkner, Ph.D., of University of Texas at Austin, who moderated the discussion. “It’s offering opportunities for new ways to teach and new ways for students to learn that may or may not involve the intervention of a real, physical teacher.”
“We ought to be looking into technologies because our students really, really value the opportunity to engage with us,” said Leebron of Rice University. “And I think what we’re going to see in the classroom is if you’re not using that classroom to truly engage with people, you’re using that classroom in a way that people will disengage with and they simply won’t come to class.”
The TAMEST Membership is honored to have new University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven kick off its new member event at the 12th annual conference on Wednesday evening, January 21, 2015, at Houston’s Omni Hotel. The new member event was added to the agenda at TAMEST’s 2012 Annual Conference in Houston and quickly became a popular tradition for acknowledging the previous year’s members who were either elected to the National Academies or relocated to Texas.
We look forward to Chancellor McRaven’s welcoming remarks at the Wednesday evening event. He will be introduced by TAMEST’s Co-founder and Honorary Chair Kay Bailey Hutchison. As noted in Chancellor McRaven’s bio, his last assignment with the Navy was Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, during which time he led a force of 69,000 men and women with an annual budget of more than $10 billion. We understand from his comments to the media there are many parallels between his previous position and his new one as head of The University of Texas System. He also is a recognized national authority on U.S. foreign policy and has advised the president, secretary of defense, secretary of state, secretary of homeland security and other U.S. leaders on defense issues. He has worked extensively with leaders on Capitol Hill, and as a three- and four-star admiral, he was routinely involved in national policy decisions during both the Bush and Obama administrations.
Of particular interest to TAMEST Members are Chancellor McRaven’s remarks regarding the value of research recently made to the UT System’s community commenting, “I understand and value the work in a way that others may not, because a lot of the research that starts in Texas has saved lives on the battlefield. I have seen it firsthand.” He is committed to collaborative efforts between academia and industry stating, “I am also excited about the prospects of partnering with the other great academic and research institutions and with industry in the state and beyond. I will quickly reach out to leaders in these areas to find ways to improve collaboration and cooperation for the good of all the people of Texas.” The full text of his message is available here.
Chancellor McRaven created quite a stir in the media with his May 2014 commencement speech to his alma mater at UT Austin going viral with over 3 million views on YouTube.
We envision a long and productive relationship with Chancellor McRaven advancing scientific research and innovation across the UT System, TAMEST Member Institutions, and industry throughout Texas.
In the early 1990s, the federal government launched a 15-year program to map the human genome, and in the process revolutionized the way researchers conducted science. The Human Genome Project required the collaborative work of biologists, engineers, computer scientists, clinicians and more. It involved a hefty investment of research funding that, by some estimates, returned $141 for every dollar spent.
Now, Washington’s research establishment has issued a new challenge to the scientific community — the BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies). This bold idea — that we can develop ways to provide a real-time view of the working brain — is of great interest here at UT Dallas, which has long been dedicated to discovering the brain’s inner workings.
These federal grants support research that will help our scientists and engineers better understand anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress, aging of the brain and autism. They support efforts to develop new methods for delivering molecules across the blood-brain barrier.
These researchers not only focus on their own quest for knowledge but also pay keen attention to training future generations of neuroscientists. Our undergraduate neuroscience program is still relatively young, first enrolling students in 1996. Enrollment has more than tripled in the past eight years. Our master’s program in applied cognition and neuroscience and the doctoral program in cognition and neuroscience have both steadily increased in size.
Grants from the NIH and other sources support faculty inquiry, and also bring students into the lab to gain hands-on research experiences. For example, Drs. Christa McIntyre-Rodriguez and Sven Kroener were awarded a grant with a provision that undergraduate students be trained as researchers to investigate the mechanisms behind anxiety disorders. Upwards of 30 undergraduate volunteers spend time in our larger neuroscience research labs. More than 80 are involved in work in the Texas Biomedical Device Center, according to a report given recently by the center’s director, Dr. Rob Rennaker. The valuable experience these budding researchers gain can provide a major advantage when applying to top graduate schools.
It remains to be seen what will be discovered through the nascent BRAIN Initiative and where those discoveries will lead. But we expect that within this generation of scientists and researchers working on the project there will be a significant number of important connections and discoveries here at UT Dallas, where we focus on creating the future.
David E. Daniel, Ph.D., is president of UT Dallas. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and past president of TAMEST.
UT Dallas faculty members are passionate about research, discovery and innovation. Their work in labs and in the field is not only vital to the pursuit of new knowledge, it is equally critical to the learning experience provided to students. This commitment to taking the time to help students get their hands dirty results in graduates who are capable of recognizing and seizing opportunity—to launch a new company, to make a scientific breakthrough, to change the world for the better.
Consider Carter Haines BS’11. Carter came to UT Dallas the summer before his junior year at Plano East High School to participate in a program called NanoExplorers. Through NanoExplorers, qualified high school students gain early experience in conducting hands-on research related to nanotechnology, which examines how things work at the scale of atoms and molecules. The program was founded by Dr. Ray Baughman, director of the Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute and holder of the Robert A. Welch Distinguished Chair in Chemistry. Dr. Baughman’s work in the world of the very small has a potentially huge impact in widespread applications from energy harvesting and storage to artificial muscles and super-strong fibers.
Dr. Baughman is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and one of our most distinguished and accomplished faculty members, but he hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be young and unsure of how to get started in science. As a teenager, he rode his bike to the nearest university and without any introduction, knocked on the door of a professor’s lab. His initiative was rewarded with the opportunity to conduct laboratory research under the guidance of a university faculty member—an experience that inspired him to pursue his dreams. NanoExplorers is his way of opening a door to other potential young scientists.
Carter spent three high school summers as a NanoExplorer in Dr. Baughman’s lab. Then, as an undergraduate physics and neuroscience major at UT Dallas, he continued to work there, focusing on artificial muscles made from carbon nanotubes. When Carter began considering graduate schools, the choice was clear.
“What UT Dallas offers is unique—a lot of creativity and freedom,” says Carter, a current PhD student in materials science and engineering who has published six papers in high-impact journals and has three U.S. patent filings. He’s also managed to work in some important service, spending this past summer mentoring a new crop of high school students in NanoExplorers.
When we describe the impact UT Dallas is making, what we are really talking about is the work of people like Carter Haines and Ray Baughman. They set out not only to discover the unknown and turn it to humankind’s advantage, but also to encourage others to join them in that quest. Carter, Ray, and the people they teach and launch into the process of discovery, are the reason research universities like UT Dallas matter. Though making the next big discovery is a major motivation, opening doors for our students is always our greatest mission and greatest point of pride.
David E. Daniel, Ph.D., is president of UT Dallas. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and past president of TAMEST.
At the same time, many educational working groups identified a bright point: the critical role played by the Informal Science Education (ISE) community of museums and science centers in motivating youth to follow STEM careers. It was recognized that we need to not only educate our youth, we need to inspire them—as well as their parents, and the community. I personally observed the strength of inspiration from the many hundreds of speeches I have given about space exploration to world-wide audiences, for more than three decades. It wasn’t surprising to me: I am a bit biased in this regard. Inspiration from the Apollo program motivated me to study algebra, and then later to leave the ranch so that I could help build Space Shuttle Columbia.
We have many STEM challenges in Texas, as well as proposed solutions. These were addressed in the TAMEST report, The Next Frontier: World Class Math and Science Education for Texas. Houston has its own unique challenges, which we hope to successfully address through the UH STEM center. This Center will serve to promote collaboration within existing university programs, strengthen those that are successful, incorporate best practices, and participate more proactively in external partnerships and networks. The UH programs include teachHouston, replicated after UTeach, the Scholar Enrichment Program (SEP) for science and math undergraduates, PROMES for engineering undergraduates, the Mars Rover Program for elementary and middle school students, and various teacher enrichment programs.
When I was the President and CEO of the Museum of Flight in Seattle, Washington, I made several observations which I hope to bring to bear in my new role at the University of Houston. One of the strengths of the museum is its focus on the people, not just the history and the “things” of aviation and space. We incorporated local aviators, engineers, innovators, designers, and astronauts into the exhibits so that our young K-12 visitors could see themselves in these roles. We also included “hands on” experiences and interactive exhibits, as well as “inspirational” visual media.
In the TAMEST report, I was particularly struck with a similar thought by Dr. Larry Faulkner, President Emeritus of The University of Texas at Austin: “In the world at large, a more positive image of STEM careers and the people who pursue them must be conveyed.” The report discussed the role that the media and the internet have on the public perceptions of science and engineering and the people who are in those careers. I suggest that the role that the media plays is far more critically significant than we currently understand, and that we will not make the large scale STEM preparation and enrollment changes we need to make in the short time we have left, unless we engage those who control the planned content in all public media and participate more fully in contributing to its content.
There are many examples of how we have lost control of the message in the last 50 years, as the primary communication mediums have changed from newspapers, TV stations which had much more local programming, and radio, to cable TV, the Internet (with Facebook and Wikipedia), and portable phones with texting and Twitter. Let me provide three very recent personal examples of the results of poor STEM imaging:
In a recent encounter with a high school counselor, she advised me that she didn’t recommend engineering to her students because “my students like to work with people.”
At a recent luncheon with about forty 17-year-old young women invited to the NASA Johnson Space Center to participate in the WISH program, they told me that while they were encouraged into STEM by their parents and teachers, they didn’t understand why “society” wasn’t encouraging them. I asked what they meant by “society,” and they answered “you know, the internet and reality TV shows.” They shared with me that they thought “society” valued them more for how they looked, rather than what they knew or did.
On a recent CSI episode (Miami), the female Ph.D. Aerospace Engineer, who was widely published and successful, murdered a woman so that she could take her place as a TV soap opera lead. Her reason? To change careers because she couldn’t get a date as an engineer.
In order to address the imaging and messaging challenge, the UH STEM Center is not only developing the “traditional” website (to be launched soon), but also has its own Facebook page and Twitter account. So do I. Engaging in Twitter and Facebook can be daunting and risky, but used intelligently and carefully, it can provide more positive and realistic imaging for youth (and many adults). When I meet with students or scientists and engineers, I often take a “phone” picture and tweet it. My staff will also post it to Facebook. Some of those pictures are included in this blog. These are faces of future engineers and scientists. We have also engaged PBS Ch8, which resides at the UH campus. President Lisa Shumate is a strong supporter of STEM programming, and we are working together to find funds for new content. Even this may not be enough. It is time that we engage the networks, Hollywood, cable TV, the producers, Google, Bing, and the “writers” at a national level. They need to see our data. They use the technology we develop; in fact, their business models depend upon it. In 2008, the National Academies published Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering to provide well vetted public messaging about STEM careers. How do we move it forward?
Dr. Bonnie J. Dunbar’s professional experience spans industry, academia, government, and the non-profit sectors. She has been a practicing engineer recognized as a “Fellow” by peer groups and appointed to lead national teams evaluating future space exploration technology development, microgravity science development, and human space operations for the National Academy of Engineering. She was a five-time Space Shuttle Astronaut with more than 50 days in space and an integral member of the research and operations development teams for those flights. Recognized with NASA Spaceflight and Leadership medals, Dr. Dunbar is the recipient of seven honorary academic degrees and invited university lectures. She has been recognized for developing and supporting STEM programs in schools and with Informal Science Education (ISE) institutions. She is skilled at developing operational excellence within culturally diverse environments and creating a collectively supported strategic vision. Dr. Dunbar is an internationally recognized speaker who is frequently requested to lecture on topics related to human spaceflight, spacecraft design, spaceflight research operations, microgravity research, and STEM careers.
Dr. Dunbar was recently elected to the august Executive Committee of the International Association of Space Explorers (ASE) at the XXV Planetary Congress of the ASE, held last year in Saudi Arabia. She is the first woman space flier in that committee’s 25-year history. In April, she was inducted into the Astronaut Hall of Fame in Florida.
In 2013, she returned to the University of Houston as a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and to lead a new STEM center (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), dedicated to improving STEM education and literacy and encouraging more young people to study these fields in college. In June, Dr. Dunbar was also named the new director of the college’s Aerospace Engineering Program.
Dr. Dunbar was elected to the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in 2002 and was a founding member of The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (TAMEST) Board of Directors in 2004.