How Do You Know That?

“It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known but to question it.” — Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man

(Editor’s note: After leading research programs with the U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Rick Spinrad became Vice President for Research at Oregon State University in 2010. He received his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in oceanography from OSU.)

As an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University in the 1970s, I immersed myself in learning about my field of choice, oceanography. I spent plenty of time in class studying the leading texts of the day. But my real education came from first-hand research experiences. In fact, on my first scientific cruise, I probably learned more about the ocean by collecting real data than I had in my first year of study. Some of my most powerful lessons came from the unexpected, the data that didn’t correspond to my expectations, the surprises that inevitably happen in science.

Picture from the past:  As a graduate student, Rick Spinrad, right, conducted research on OSU's research vessel Wecoma off the coast of Peru. (Photo courtesy of Rick Spinrad)

Picture from the past: As a graduate student, Rick Spinrad, right, conducted research on OSU's research vessel Wecoma off the coast of Peru. (Photo courtesy of Rick Spinrad)

Today, I support increasing opportunities for undergraduates to conduct hands-on, extra-curricular research. There has been much talk in academia about helping students prepare for their future roles as society’s leaders and contributors. First they need to become intimate with the science. We don’t need merely good test-takers. At OSU, we strive to nurture people who question what we think we know, as Bronowski says, and people who can solve the world’s real problems.

We also need scientists to be communicators. My parents wrote the Speaker’s Lifetime Library, a resource for presenters, so communicating was always important to me. In my own career, I find myself having to make scientific information comprehensible to a diverse audience. I need to not only share information but also to plead the case, justify the activities, inspire the funding — before the public, policymakers, legislators, potential sponsors and partners.

I am impressed that many OSU researchers use their passion and intellect to translate complex issues into meaningful, personal, memorable insights. I have heard Kathleen Dean Moore (Distinguished Professor of Philosophy) weave ethics into our understanding of the environment. On a research trip this winter, I listened to Bruce Mate (Director, OSU Marine Mammal Institute) talk passionately about the unknowns of whale migration.

Our students learn from scholars and researchers in studios and laboratories, on ships, in forests and on farms. And as undergraduates make discoveries that excite their curiosity, they also gain skills for life. They learn to think critically, to respond to assertions by their peers and others not with a nod and a smile but with a question: How do you know that?

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