JB, 3 Nov – Dr. Sonia Ortega has one advice to graduate students and researchers in science and engineering: they bear responsibility in bringing the community closer to their field of work, and educating the non-science community on the impact of their research towards the well-being and quality of life of the global reputation.

The Director of Graduate STEM Fellowship Programme of the US National Science Foundation (NSF) delivered a lecture to researchers and graduate students of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) on Friday morning entitled “Global Challenges: Science and Education in the 21st Century”. The arrangement was made possible via the Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT).

In her lecture, Dr. Ortega shared initiatives conducted by the NSF in closing the knowledge gap between the science and local communities and made a call for the university in leveraging its research niches to engage with local communities.

Working on the “Grand challenges” of the global population

Dr. Ortega informed the audience on the “grand challenges” facing humankind in the 21st century i.e. energy, climate change, water, food-related issues such as food security, quality of food, food availability and nutrition, healthcare, safety and infrastructure. Citing an example of projected temperature changes over centuries, she warned the audience on the adverse affects of rising temperature on the ecosystem, such as severe droughts and floods, coral bleaching, acidification of seawater and the risk of climate on productivity of big crops such as rice and maize.

The NSF has identified the “grand challenges” to work on with American universities and industries and published numerous reports addressing critical recommendations in recent years, such as the “Grand Challenges for Biological and Environmental Research: A Long-Term Vision”, “Grand Challenges for Engineering” and “A New Biology in the 21st century”. According to Dr. Ortega, these “grand challenges” are interdisciplinary, complex and significantly involves a multitude of stakeholders such as policy, governments and geopolitical forces. In other words, scientists and engineers should not work in isolation as particular solutions to address the “grand challenges” requires a combination of laboratory outputs, political will and the awareness and the buy-in of the community involved.

Transforming postgraduate education in science and engineering

Dr. Ortega acknowledged the challenge in training postgraduate students and early career researchers to be interdisciplinary academics, scientists and engineers. The NSF proposed that such training should start early at every stage of tertiary education i.e. pre-university, undergraduate studies, graduate studies and early career development as academics, scientists and engineers. She emphasized that there has to be an integration of challenges and disciplines through education from the very beginning so as to build the “connection” between science and engineering with education and the society.

The NSF has set up the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT), a programme that prepares postgraduate students to work on interdisciplinary research, a global culture and a variety of careers outside the academia. Graduates selected for this programme would undergo workshops and training sessions to enhance their team working skills. Such training is essential in opening up their minds towards the notion of cross-disciplinary collaboration. Graduate students under NSF have also produced videos that clarify their research in a non-science manner to the local communities, addressing the big question of “How do you see that the world can be improved through your research?”

Bringing science and engineering to local communities: The NSF Graduate STEM Fellows in K-12 Education (NSF GK-12)

Dr. Ortega introduced the NSF GK-12 programme to the audience as a case study in transforming graduate science and engineering education. The purpose of the programme is to encourage development of science professionals at primary and secondary levels.

Under this programme, postgraduate students will collaborate with primary and secondary school teachers in education and interactive sessions on their field of work inside and outside the confines of the classroom. The programme trains the students to bring cutting-edge research in a non-science manner to the students, besides training core skills in dissemination of information and community engagement.

Citing various examples of universities engaging in NSF GK-12 programme, Dr. Ortega commented that the initiative has been successful in making advances in science and engineering more relevant through strong partnerships with the local communities.

The initiative is in its 13th year of implementation and has seen the implementation of more than 200 projects throughout the US and Puerto Rico.