Restructuring the Science Institute

By BenitaZepeda

Columbia’s Provost and Senior Vice President Steve Kapelke announced on March 1 that the Science Institute will be restructured and become part of the Science and Math Department after operating independently for about 19 years.

The Science Institute, an initiative founded by Zafra Lerman, former head of the Science Institute, was launched on Sept. 1, 1991. The restructuring comes shortly after the removal of Lerman from the college in October 2009.

The e-mail announcement sent by Kapelke stated all outreach programs were to continue as normal under the direction of the Science and Math Department.

“The major changes at the Science Institute is instead of being a freestanding outreach and research institute, it will be situated under the Science and Math Department,” Kapelke said. “The administrative structure will just be different.”

However, the restructuring has forced the college to cut four of the eight original positions from the Science Institute.

“We have unfortunately had to phase out four positions, but the other positions remain intact,” Kapelke said. “They will go to work under the Science and Mathematics Department.”

Kapelke said the cuts will be “phased out” over time and are determined by what the positions are. He also said the remaining staff and faculty members will continue to work with outreach programs and Chicago Public Schools.

“We’re primarily concerned with keeping a very established and wonderful record of outreach activity, and we want to make sure that outreach activity continues in the strongest way that we can,” Kapelke said.

In an announcement sent to the Columbia Community on May 30, 1991, former Columbia President Mike Alexandroff stated the Science Institute would design new initiatives in science and public policy, science communication and science education, and would develop associations with the national and world scientific communities.

The Science Institute was to welcome Lerman’s “innovative and highly successful methods of teaching science at the undergraduate level.” It was originally intended to house the Masters of Arts in Teaching Science graduate program, which never launched.

Without housing a graduate program, the Science Institute served as a platform for scientific research headed by Lerman, and the outreach programs in conjunction with Chicago Public Schools.

In 2004, the curriculum housed under the Science Institute received the Council of Independent Colleges’ Heuer Award for Outstanding Achievement in Undergraduate Science Education.

The Science Institute also holds the Malta conferences, which are peace conferences to which top scientists from Middle Eastern nations are invited.  Founded by Lerman, the first conference was held in Malta from Dec. 6-11, 2003.  There have since been three additional Malta Conferences, which were held in 2005 in Malta, 2007 in Istanbul, Turkey, and in November 2009 in Amman, Jordan.

The Science Institute is no stranger to controversy. In 2005, Columbia conducted a raid of the lab to locate the source of the infamous “Wacky Warrick” Web site created by a former faculty member.

The Science Institute’s curriculum was removed and the courses were given to the Science and Math Department in 2006.  The institute has since been used for only the outreach programs and for scientific research.

Shortly after the consolidation of the courses, in 2007 the Science and Math Department decided to drop all the integrated courses from the curriculum.

The Science and Math Department Chair Constantin Rasinariu said he is very excited for this transition and is following  the decisions of administration.

“I welcome the people who are coming to our department,” Rasinariu said.

Kapelke said the restructuring of the Science Institute will benefit its mission.

“We have been very proud of the work they have done in outreach and we want that to continue,” Kapelke said. “The restructuring was a way to make that even more effective, if possible, and to provide a level of both administrative and structural support that will, if anything, enhance their ability to do what they have been doing.”