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Professor David Raubenheimer in Nepal, researching how climate changes are impacting on nutrition availability for wildlife and humans.


New breed of scientist to tackle ‘wicked’ problems


Oiled birds from the Rena oil spill in the Bay of Plenty highlight the
need for effective environmental disaster responses, raising
questions about dependence on fossil fuels.

Clever science has given us industrial, chemical, and technological developments to make life comfortable and convenient, but its excesses are putting the planet in peril, says Massey University Vice-Chancellor Steve Maharey.

The Rena oil spill in the Bay of Plenty is a recent example and stark reminder of the growing need for a new approach to science education that will help to foster fast, effective solutions to environmental crises and other related issues, he says.

That’s why he is calling for the country’s top 30 aspiring young scientists to join the first intake for its Bachelor of Natural Sciences, where chemistry, physics and biology go hand-in-hand with project management, sustainability, sociology and other relevant topics to give graduates a broader perspective and range of skills.

Dubbed the BNatSci, the undergraduate degree is designed to educate students both in and beyond the classic science subjects, through project-based, research-oriented learning that encourages them to think broadly and creatively to find solutions to the complex issues.

Smart scientists with new ways of thinking are needed to find solutions to ‘wicked’ – or difficult, complex – problems, such as a soaring global population, obesity, widespread pollution, climate change impacts, species extinction, and the demand for safe, healthy food and clean energy, Mr Maharey says.

“Our research into where modern science education is heading tells us that the best scientists are those who learn in a multidisciplinary context. They are encouraged to do their own research and apply the theoretical knowledge to problem-solving scenarios, and to think creatively across subject boundaries within and beyond science,” he says.

Mr Maharey says the new degree aims to produce “a new breed of scientist able to address the most pressing issues the world faces. As a university, we want to make a difference by being responsive to the real world we live in, and responsible for providing the kinds of education and career paths that will ultimately make the world a better place.”

This project-based model of learning is familiar to many high school pupils, but they don’t necessarily continue it when they go to university, Mr Maharey says.

The three-year undergraduate programme, with the option of a master's degree to follow, is modelled on the highly respected Cambridge University Bachelor of Natural Sciences. Like its Cambridge counterpart, Massey’s BNatSci provides depth and breadth across science subjects – chemistry, physics, biology and maths – as well as non-science subjects, such as project management, philosophy, communications and entrepreneurship.

The programme director for the degree is Professor David Raubenheimer, a nutritional ecologist widely renowned for his international research projects in remote regions of Nepal, Uganda and China, where he tracks snow leopard, blue sheep, mountain gorilla and panda to analyse interactions between wildlife and humans to understand links between environmental changes and food sources.

His research, using geometric modelling to understand biological systems, has led to new findings about what drives nutrition needs, and provided new insights into underlying causes of the obesity epidemic.

Professor Raubenheimer, who did his PhD at Oxford University, says he would have welcomed the choice of a degree like Massey’s Bachelor of Natural Sciences when he was an undergraduate student.
He says the degree is highly relevant in today’s information saturated world. “The proliferation of scientific information with online research and websites means it is critical for scientists to learn how to navigate, sift, understand and analyse material then determine what is of value,” he says.

Flowing from this is a greater demand on 21st century scientists to be skilled at explaining and communicating science ideas and concepts to non-science audiences, as science increasingly underpins economic policy and business decisions, and consumer behaviour.

Research has also shown employers in science-related fields – whether research in biosciences, agrifood and pharmacology, food and information technology, health services or product development – want graduates who can think creatively and across subject boundaries, he says.

Colin Harvey ONZM, head of Ancare Scientific Ltd, says the introduction of the degree is timely and reflects the contemporary approach to scientific endeavour.

“Employers are looking for graduates who have a solid and broad grounding in the sciences, a feel for business and a good understanding of science-and-society issues, such as the importance of sustainability,” he says. “Above all, we want graduates who can think independently and communicate well.”

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