Science studies surge at CSU

WILLIMANTIC – Students like biology major Kyle Rockett, working in state-of-the-art laboratories, are fueling a surge in interest in science careers at the Connecticut State University System.

The number of students majoring in science grew by nearly one-third over the past five years at the system’s four universities, with the biggest increases at campuses that opened new science buildings.

ECSU Science building

Eastern Connecticut State University’s new science building (State of Connecticut)

“Enrollment in science departments at Eastern has exploded,” said Carmen Cid, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Eastern Connecticut State University, where officials from all four CSUS universities held a press conference Tuesday to highlight science education.

The press conference took place in Eastern’s new $64.2 million science building, a giant, high-tech classroom and laboratory center that officials credit with helping spur interest in the sciences.

“It was just exciting to be working in a new building,” said Rockett, 25, a senior from Ledyard who said the science building, which opened in 2008, was a factor in his decision to attend Eastern. “That was a big thing coming back here,” said Rockett, who plans to attend medical school after graduation.

At public and private colleges and universities across Connecticut,  the number of graduates receiving degrees in science, technology, engineering and math fields has grown steadily over the past decade, including a nearly 20 percent increase in the past five years, the State Department of Higher Education reports.

Nationwide, the number of degrees awarded in science and engineering also is on the rise, according to figures from the National Science Foundation, but experts remain concerned that there is still a shortage of talent.

“Currently, far too many of America’s best and brightest young men and women go unrecognized and underdeveloped” in science fields, said a report issued this year by the National Science Board, the National Science Foundation’s policy arm.

A report to Congress in 2005 by leading science organizations warned “that the scientific and technological building blocks critical to our economic leadership are eroding at a time when many other nations are gathering strength.”

At the CSU system’s four universities, officials said 1,818 students are majoring in fields such as biochemistry, biomolecular sciences, meteorology, chemistry, earth sciences, environmental science, physics and related fields. That is up from 1,373 students five years ago.

“Our students go on to become doctors, bench scientists, researchers – all in the state of Connecticut,” said Elsa Núñez, president at Eastern Connecticut State University.

Science enrollments jumped by 54 percent over five years at Eastern, where the new classroom building includes equipment such as mass spectrometers and high-performance liquid chromatography instruments. Western Connecticut State University in Danbury, where a new science building opened in 2005, reported a five-year increase of 51 percent in science majors.

“It appears that the phrase ‘If you build it, they will come’ holds true for students and science,” said Karl J. Krapek, chairman of the CSU system’s Board of Trustees.

CSUS officials also announced a new graduate program in nanotechnology, a branch of technology involving the manufacture of devices and materials on an extremely small scale, measured in units as small as atoms or molecules.

The 12-credit program, culminating in a graduate certificate, is supported by a $750,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy and is tentatively scheduled to begin next fall at all four CSU campuses. It includes a new Nanotechnology Center with specialized equipment and facilities at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.

Experts say nanotechnology holds promise for profound advances in science.

“Material science and nanotechnology are cutting-edge fields that impact all technology sectors, including defense, medicine, as well as consumer products,” Christine Broadbridge, a physics professor at Southern, said at Tuesday’s press conference.

New developments in the field are “expected to exceed the impact of the invention of the computer, plastics [and] medical imaging,” she said.