Between the Lines: September-October 2010

Project Search, Duke’s newest preorientation program, aims to have Duke’s newest students respond— early and often—to the opportunities of a research university. Duke is home to researchers who “can read primates’ minds, create artificial chromosomes, and engineer artificial blood vessels,” the program says on its website. “And these labs all have undergraduates.”

Even as it looks to feed students into research labs, Project Search (or pSearch) also feeds into one of the themes of a new book edited by public policy professor Charles Clotfelter ’69. In American Universities in a Global Market, Clotfelter notes that higher education in the U.S. is at risk of losing ground to its global competitors. One particular concern is the decline in advanced study in the so-called STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math.

One of the book’s contributors, Eric Bettinger, who teaches at the Stanford University School of Education, writes that STEM fields retain only about half of their students; even among top performing students, almost half of those who come to college with a STEM interest shift to an area that seems more interesting or more lucrative. Women—even those “at the top of the ability distribution”—disproportionately head elsewhere. Since the decision to depart from STEM fields occurs early in students’ careers, Bettinger suggests, efforts meant to improve retention should proceed from a simple credo: Catch them early.

For many of the pSearchers, still on the cusp of their college careers, their late-August lab work didn’t produce the desired scientific results in the desired timeframe. Yet when the students were presented with the option of spending more time in the lab, one declared, “We’re scientists. We don’t give up,” and everyone agreed.

That was a wryly self-aware response. But it pointed to an impressive understanding of the purpose of a global research university: Forging connections around the world is, increasingly, an important pursuit. So is nurturing future generations of researchers.

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