The subject of scientific literacy in the United States has generated considerable recent discussion. Within the scientific community, there is a strong sentiment that science education for the nonscientist is woefully inadequate, even at the college level, where few students are exposed to more than introductory courses. The general topic of science education is outside the scope of this report, but concerns about education in polymer science and engineering are closely related. The scope of the problem is large, and modifying the U.S. educational system will require a major cooperative effort over an extended period of time.
Even among most professional scientists, the past level of education in polymer science has been extremely low. This is surprising because it is estimated that about half of practicing chemists and chemical engineers work with polymers at some point in their careers. In the past, most polymer education has occurred as on-the-job training, but the situation is changing. Because of the complexity and interdisciplinary nature of modern polymer science, professionals trained in traditional academic fields cannot be immediately productive upon moving into polymer research or engineering. To fill the need for more professionals with expertise in polymers, the education of future scientists and engineers will have to be modified, and ways will have to be developed for practicing researchers to become aware of rapid progress in macromolecular synthesis, processing, and applications.
Because most students in the United States are educated in traditional areas, it is likely that the key to introducing undergraduates to polymer science will be the natural development of polymer science as an important component of these traditional areas. Exciting and innovative research becomes part of the general curriculum over time. As new applications, strategies for synthesis, theoretical methods, and characterization techniques for polymers become more accessible to faculty in traditional fields, polymer science will emerge as part of the core education in science.
The steady growth of polymers in U.S. industry has resulted in a major increase in polymer science and engineering faculty during the last 40 years. More recently, there has been a significant increase in the number of faculty identified with traditional fields who are conducting research in polymer science. This shift will likely result in the incorporation of concepts of polymer and macromolecular science into a broad range of chemistry and chemical engineering courses.
The number of academic polymer researchers in the United States and Canada can be estimated from survey data published by the Plastics Institute of America (1992), which lists 48 colleges and universities with polymer programs, of which 43 are in the United States. U.S. universities have a total of 548 faculty who are engaged in polymer research. This number is a lower limit because