California State Polytechnic University, Pomona
Biological Sciences Department
Throughout its history, the Biological Sciences Department has had two opportunities. The first is to provide our students with a solid education in biology, following the Cal Poly creed of "learning
by doing". Although theory has always been a crucial part of our curriculum, our students have the "hands-on" experience with organisms, processes, and instrumentation that has enabled them to
succeed after graduation. Along with many other departments at Cal Poly, the department has kept the "technic" in Polytechnic.
The second opportunity is to provide students in many disciplines of biology with instruction on the "cutting edge" of the field. Because many of our faculty succeed in professional development
through collaboration with scientists at other institutions, we are well aware of current directions. We bring that knowledge to our students, often more effectively than at research universities,
where the faculty are less involved in undergraduate instruction.
Our ability to meet these opportunities has been severely challenged in recent years:
- The bulk of "everyday" equipment--microscopes, hot plates, spectrophotometers, ovens, etc.--is 20 or more years old. Beyond the obvious problem of keeping such equipment in good repair, biology
has progressed so much in those twenty years that much of the equipment fails to meet current needs. This problem is put in sharp focus by the growing importance of computers: computers are regularly
discarded after 7-10 years because they no longer meet current needs.
- In the 1980s the department regularly replaced items that were unrepairable or completely outmoded, so that "windfall" funding from state or outside sources could be used for new types of
technology. During the budget crisis, even this low level of replacement was curtailed, so that we would still be worse off than we were in 1980 even if technology had not advanced since
- Many of our faculty have been aggressive and effective in obtaining outside funding for special-purpose, "cutting edge" technology. Once the equipment is on campus, it is difficult to keep it
repaired, since repair budgets are aimed at keeping the basic equipment alive. It is also difficult to provide the necessary supporting technology not covered by the grant, since equipment budgets
are overwhelmed by need for basic equipment.
- Our ability to effectively educate our students is impaired by the state of our technology. It is as if we were training students to drive stagecoaches when the market demanded airline
Despite the challenges we face, the department has used a number of approaches to meet the needs for instructional technology. Unrepairable equipment is routinely "parted out" for repair of similar
functional items. Equipment is often fashioned in-house (although "home-made" equipment constructed by retired faculty loses its value quickly). Curricula are modified to make best use of the
remaining instrumentation. All of these are stopgap measures, but they have effectively postponed the negative consequences for the quality of education.
The integration of computer technology has been even more successful. Our efforts began in 1985 with a grant from the National Science Foundation to introduce computer data acquisition and
analysis in upper division courses. A few years later another NSF grant supported computer image analysis on the scanning electron microscope. Currently, the CALI program is introducing
computer-assisted instruction in lower division labs. All department faculty now have computer workstations, and the department has a growing presence on the World Wide Web.
- Meeting minimal needs for basic instruction
- Sources of funding--Although the department will continue to aggressively seek outside support for acquiring technology, such support is seldom ongoing, and it cannot be relied upon for
basic instruction. Thus we must make the best of the more consistent but smaller amounts of state support.
- Inventory--Because the size of the department interferes with ready communication, it is not unusual for equipment to sit unused in one lab when another course might have use for it. An
ongoing inventory process will provide faculty with an accounting of available equipment.
- Repair--The basis of an effective repair program is triage. Money should not be spent to repair equipment which will not be used, nor should money be spent to buy new equipment if existing
equipment is adequate and repairable. The department's efforts at triage have been effective but inconsistent. We will improve the process by linking it to the equipment inventory and by seeking
broader involvement of the faculty in decision-making. We will also address the balance between repair and acquiring new technology.
- Storage--It is folly to discard equipment simply because it is not currently used, but storage facilities are limited. It is crucial to evaluate the use of storage as part of the triage
process, so that it can be used for items with lasting value and high probability of continued use. As with repair, broad consultation with the affected faculty is crucial.
- Health and safety--Malfunctions of the equipment and the physical plant always endanger the educational process, but in some cases they endanger the students. We will continue to address
safety issues in repair and replacement of equipment, but because functioning equipment is not always safe equipment, it is clear that the necessary concern for safety will further affect the level
of instructional technology.
- Maintaining the infrastructure
- Computers--Because of the rapid pace of technology, computers always fall victim to obsolescence. At various times over the past dozen years, the department has had state-of-the-art
computer equipment, a situation that usually lasts two or three months. It is important to keep computing technology in the department up-to-date, but the process of upgrading can come to resemble
shoveling money into a bottomless pit. To effectively address this problem, the department will provide upgrades in computer technology based on need, as evaluated from written proposals. Computer
equipment replaced by new purchases will be reassigned based on the same criteria. It is also highly desirable to establish a department-wide computer network, accessible to both Macintosh and
Windows-compatible computers, that would allow sharing of peripherals such as color printers.
- Electron Microscopy Center--At one time this was one of the finest such facilities in the CSU system, but now that funding is a department responsibility (with no additional allocation for
that purpose), it is not possible to keep the center in full operation, and those faculty in Biological Sciences and other departments who use electron microscopy must go off-campus. We believe
funding for the Center should return to the University level, so that it can once again provide a service to the entire campus.
- Building 3--Until such time as a new Science building is built, the department will seek ways to ameliorate the deteriorating and hazardous condition of Building 3.
- Keeping current
- Wish-list--Windfall funding is a common occurrence at Cal Poly, both from state and outside sources. To increase our ability to make the most effective use of windfalls, we will maintain
and update a ranked list of major items of equipment, both basic equipment that is especially expensive and cutting-edge technology that could seldom be justified from yearly allotments. The list
will provide specific needs that donors may wish to fill, and will allow us to use extra state funds to the best advantage of the educational program. The list will be developed with full knowledge
and consultation of all the faculty, so that no important needs will be overlooked.
- Industry connections--The department has long maintained connections with the industries that employ our graduates, and in the past these industries have provided us with current
technology. This benefits us, and it also benefits the industries, because the Cal Poly graduates they hire will already have experience with the appropriate instrumentation. These connections are
more important than ever: if our technology declines, our students will not have the experience necessary to be competitive in the job market, and industries will be less inclined to help us
The Biological Sciences Department will continue to aggressively meet the challenge of providing a quality education with limited support for technology. It is clear, however, that this process has
its limits, and without effective remedy for the problems of outdated equipment and deteriorating facilities, all our efforts will ultimately be futile.
Return to Biological Sciences home page
This page prepared by Curtis Clark, firstname.lastname@example.org
Last revision Thursday, April 24, 1997.