Science, New College and the Public Square


Much has been written about how divided our country is. And some of it is true. So it is worth noting when we’re not.

On August 21, the solar eclipse pulled Americans together in a way that now seems difficult to remember. No one doubted that Charleston would go dark at 2:46pm or that at New College the eclipse would begin at 1:18:44pm and peak when the sun was 83 percent occluded at 2:50:50pm. As I write, individuals and organizations across Florida are carefully consulting the analyses of sophisticated meteorological models performed by governmental agencies and university groups to determine the probable path of incoming storms and are making decisions based on that information.

With a few exceptions around evolution, anthropogenic climate change and the efficacy of vaccinations, most Americans believe in science. We insist that science be taught to all students. We make sure that our young know of the scientific method and the role of hypothesis and experiment. As I pointed out in last month’s column, the United States was founded on science.

In this context, the opening of the new $10-million wing of the Heiser Natural Sciences Complex is not just significant for New College, but for the entire region. The building completes, and ties together, the science facilities at New College. In addition to housing teaching labs, the new buildings contain research laboratories under the direction of faculty members. At a residential liberal arts college such as New College, research laboratories are powerful teaching venues. We have no graduate students or postdoctoral fellows in the physical sciences, so our undergraduates use all the equipment. In a well-functioning lab, the professor supervises up to a dozen students working on different, but related research projects. Seniors mentor the juniors, the juniors mentor the sophomores, and the sophomores help first-year students. Students learn science by doing science, and helping others learn deepens their understanding.

This sort of immersive education produces extraordinary results. New College is well known for students who go in to the humanities and law, but an astonishing 16 percent of graduates go onto to receive PhDs in science and engineering disciplines. In fact, on a per capita basis, New College produces more graduates who go on to receive PhDs in science and engineering than any other university in the country except for Caltech and Harvey Mudd. It is slightly ahead of fourth place MIT. No university in Florida is even remotely close, and tiny New College produces a significant fraction of Florida’s scientists. The new science building will allow New College to continue that record. It will enable the College to attract more scholars who will interact with their faculty peers and research scientists at other area institutions. And this, in turn, will help nourish the emerging entrepreneurial economy in our region.

The official dedication of the building is from 5-7pm on October 12. Please join us.

Dr. Donal O’Shea is president of New College of Florida.

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