Science and the Public Focus of New Online Master's Degree Program

Release Date: March 11, 2008

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Imagine being the person who really understands global warming or stem cell research or genetically modified foods, the one others go to when they need a clear and accurate explanation of the seemingly mysterious issues of science that affect everyone's daily life.

Now imagine tapping into that knowledge as a professional skill, having the ability to bring that comfort level to a corporation or a non-profit agency or a school.

That's the reasoning behind Science and the Public, a new master's degree program offered by the University at Buffalo's Graduate School of Education in conjunction with the Center for Inquiry, a not-for-profit organization devoted to public education about reason and science, with its headquarters in Amherst. Designed to address an acknowledged gap in science knowledge, the Science and the Public program trains professionals who can bring an extra talent to the occupational table.

"There is a large need in this country for people who can communicate science to the public and educate them on how science works," says John R. Shook, adjunct assistant professor of science education in UB's Graduate School of Education and vice president of the Center for Inquiry, where he coordinates the center's part of the program. "Politicians, educators, intellectuals and people in business constantly complain about scientific illiteracy, particularly among adults."

Xiufeng Liu, associate professor of science education and project director for the program, and Shook developed the Science and the Public program to create a new kind of graduate, one who can bridge this gap between what often seems to be the arcane world of science and the general public in need of understanding the significance of current research.

"We're trying to develop expertise among students who can analyze and communicate fields of science to anyone else who may not have a background in those sciences," says Shook. "The students have to be able to deal with how scientific research works. Then they have to be able to explain scientific facts in a simpler way, as well as explain the practical value of their scientific knowledge."

The cutting-edge nature of UB's Science and the Public program extends beyond its course content. The two-year program is offered exclusively online; part-time students enrolled in the UB program include those living in France, Ireland, Arizona and even one involved in experiments at a field station in the Caribbean.

"It's a unique program, one I haven't been able to find anywhere else," says Rich Blundell, founder of Omniscopic Productions, a company that produces science programming for national media outlets.

"Science is so broadly important for all the issues we're facing. Some of these issues clearly will be solved by science. But the reason why I think this is such a valuable program is that for even issues that aren't obviously related to science, their solutions still lie in the scientific outlook."

Blundell's present project is writing and filming scientists studying the impact of global warming on coral reefs in the U.S. Virgin Islands. He says the underlying philosophy behind the scientific outlook is an essential part of the curriculum.

"There is an ethical stance of how we treat the environment and how we treat ourselves and each other," says Blundell, who is scheduled to graduate from the program in June. "This perspective emerges from what science has taught us. So it's not just technology that emerges from science; there is an ethic about our place in the cosmos, as well. It's fascinating. It changes your world view, really."

The online component comes from UB's efforts to establish off-campus interactive learning, says Shook. "We're hoping to attract students from all across America and the world. Science and the Public is a natural program to fulfill that desire."

Begun in the fall of 2006, the program offers courses designed to give students background in the history and philosophy of science -- including the scientific method, critical thinking, statistical analysis, ethics, the relationship of science to human values and research methodology. Students are required to write a thesis on a subject that integrates their skills and knowledge on translating a scientific issue into the public sphere.

Shook says the practical and occupational applications for those completing the program are "endless." Graduates won't find a job description asking for a Science and the Public degree. But if they take a closer look at skills required for a job, a Science and the Public background opens doors in countless areas.

"Here's one example I came across," Shook says. "There's a job for a state forestry service where the job description calls for someone who is able to promote the aims of the forestry organization to its constituency. The agency relies heavily on state and private funding. So the person in this job would have to justify conservation and protection of forests to both politicians and citizens."

The program is on a rolling admissions schedule, UB officials say, which means applications for the fall 2008 and spring 2009 semester are accepted beyond normal deadlines for these semesters. For more information, log on to http://www.gse.buffalo.edu/programs/lai/31/, call the Graduate School of Education at 645-2110 or email the school at gseinfo@buffalo.edu.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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