5 Trends to Watch at CNS

By Christine Sinatra

Credit: Vivian Abagiu

Science and higher education together have brought the world countless innovations. Just at the University of Texas at Austin, scientists found folic acid, which today prevents thousands of birth defects. They created the scanning electrochemical microscope, which led to countless medical and technological breakthroughs, and developed the first secure sockets layer, the basis for safe online transactions. They discovered X-rays can induce mutations in the genes of a living being, which revolutionized genetic research. And they solved thorny mathematical equations that brought about breakthroughs in medicine and the energy industry. 

So, the world needs universities and their scientists. The health of the planet, medical progress, the next great devices and awe-inspiring discoveries all hang in the balance. Three years ago, faculty and friends of UT Austin’s College of Natural Sciences came together to talk about what the world needs most from one of the nation’s biggest colleges of science. The conclusion? Our Texas-sized college needed a map for maximizing its potential to be one of the very best. The strategic plan that grew out of that process is helping deliver what Texas, the nation and the world need from a leader in science and higher learning. 

Because the world needs » Innovative, science-literate citizens

We're » Transforming how students learn science and math.

Transformations in how students learn science and math. Tens of thousands of students each year take UT Austin science and math courses, and the aim of those classes is to produce better problem-solvers and thinkers. 

In 2014, the college established the Texas Institute for Discovery Education in Science (TIDES) to help raise the profile of and expand on excellent science education in the College. TIDES promotes student engagement and exploration in science and mathematics. The Institute’s staff guide faculty in integrating more opportunities for students to solve problems, analyze data and think at a higher level in courses. TIDES has established a new series of courses for graduate students to improve their teaching and mentoring abilities. It’s also analyzing college-wide data to identify strategies faculty use that are especially effective and worthy of replication. 

“TIDES is breaking new ground with a three-pronged approach to education innovation—large-scale experiential learning, teaching professional development for current and future faculty, and using data to drive educational decision making,” says TIDES director Erin Dolan. 

The college is also investing new energy and support in the faculty whose focus is entirely on the vital work of teaching. This is giving these professionals, who are not on the tenure track, room to try new, data-driven approaches to teaching—both in the classroom and in the online platforms that supplement traditional classes.

Because the world needs » A new generation of scientific leaders

We're » Graduating more students with STEM degrees.

Growth in STEM graduates.

With enrollment up 25 percent over the last decade and with nearly 2,000 graduates a year, Natural Sciences now is UT’s largest college. 

Students face challenging course requirements across the sciences. Nationwide, many students who major in science, technology or math either take longer than four years to graduate—or they abandon their STEM degree plan altogether.

Because academic and community support can keep students on track, the college is taking steps to help STEM majors stay engaged. New and redesigned degree plans built around a core science experience give students flexibility in their programs. And all incoming freshmen and transfers are placed in small learning communities to help them navigate UT.

“The rate of students who begin in the college and graduate with a STEM degree four years later is now at an all-time high, and the number of freshmen on academic probation is at an all-time low,” says Associate Dean for Undergraduate Education David Vanden Bout.  

As the population becomes more diverse, the college also is working to ensure groups underrepresented in the sciences have opportunities at UT. New scholarships, outreach programs and invitation-only academic learning communities all play a role. 

Finally, the college is prioritizing competitive fellowships to attract top graduate students. “Our educational effort would be incomplete without graduate students,” said Dan Knopf, Associate Dean for Graduate Education. “They do critical research for the college, make valuable contributions to teaching undergraduates and become the next generation of scientists and mathematicians.” 

Because the world needs » Breakthroughs in medicine, science and technology

We're » Facilitating discovery on campus.

New drivers of discovery on campus.

“UT’s reputation for scientific advances, the campus’s innovative offerings and its location in Austin all play a part in recruiting top scientists,” explains Dean Appling, Associate Dean for Research and Facilities. Those scientists’ brilliance lies at the heart of the college’s many world-changing discoveries. To help faculty thrive and expand into new research areas, the College has started gathering its scientists and mathematicians together for lively discussion and exchange of ideas at themed Discovery Dinners each semester.

Having productive scientific researchers and mathematicians at the top of their fields requires having cutting-edge facilities. Appling helped the college develop a master space plan that aimed to make good use of existing campus buildings and plan for renovations in some of UT’s most beloved and well-used areas, like Welch Hall. Renovations to the largest academic building began in 2015, just after the Texas Legislature approved new construction bonds for Welch. Public and private investments soon will transform this heart of campus into a hub for learning and discovery.

Because the world needs » New ideas in higher education.

We're » Leading innovations at key crossroads.

Innovations at key crossroads.

With a mission “to provide research-enhanced education and promote educationally connected research,” the College of Natural Sciences does things that can happen only at a research university.

The Freshman Research Initiative is a good example. The nation’s largest effort to involve first-year students in scientific research, FRI opens doors for students to engage in the real work of their discipline. This helps them persist in science and math and makes a difference in discoveries. FRI alumni have coauthored more than 140 peer-reviewed scientific papers. Now campuses in Texas and around the country are working to replicate the program.

“UT’s reputation for scientific advances, the campus’s innovative offerings and its location in Austin all play a part in recruiting top scientists.”

Another example: no other college of science at a top university has had the opportunity to work with a newly forming medical school in decades, but the College of Natural Sciences is doing just that with the new Dell Medical School. From reorganizing departments and research units to planning joint faculty appointments, the College is finding
ways to collaborate with the medical school.

Finally, to promote interdisciplinary research, the college established a new Catalyst Grant Program that seeds ideas at the interface of existing and emerging fields. Already, these grants have resulted in scientific breakthroughs published in the nation’s top scientific journals. 

Because the world needs » More public enthusiasm for science.

We're » Making the Texas Science impact known.

A spotlight on the Texas Science impact.

Igniting people’s passion for science requires communicating the value of discovery. That’s why the college works to convey scientists’ sense of wonder and excitement to people everywhere. 

For friends of the college, a series of Roadshow presentations provide a chance for college leaders to connect with alumni, parents and friends throughout the country. Social networks and digital communications reinforce connections, reaching more than 50,000 members of the broad Texas Science community.

Many others also have a stake in the college’s success: communities, patients, entrepreneurs, consumers and school children among them. New public outreach programs, an annual Visualizing Science gallery of beautiful images from campus labs and science-focused video and podcast series are among the ways the college is working to make its science accessible for people in Texas and around the world.