Paul Kirchman wants to help build a program from the ground up at University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, just like he did as a founding member of the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College at Florida Atlantic University.
Kirchman is the first dean for USFSM’s newly created College of Science & Mathematics, which officials announced last year was branching off from the liberal arts college. He assumed the position July 1.
“Just coming in and being a caretaker, that's not nearly as attractive as coming in and trying to build new things and start new things,” Kirchman told the Herald when he was first hired in May.
Kirchman, who grew up in the St. Petersburg area , sat down with the Bradenton Herald last week to discuss some of his goals and aspirations for the college.
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Q: What’s the past week and a half been like since you started at USFSM? You officially started on July 1, is that right?
A: I’ve been meeting people, a lot of people, trying to figure out what everybody does. Then, just being here figuring out what it is, how things run, the different systems they use... Fortunately, the whole fall semester is all worked out and is all set, even to the point where students are registered. So I think that was nice to have it all going. Then we’ll start figuring out spring.
I’m getting in touch with people to set up meetings, try to start up some programs. I’m trying to meet up with my former mentor from college who is at Mote Marine Labs now, John Reynolds — studies manatees and he was my professor at Eckerd College.
Q: What are some of your plans or your goals for yourself and for this college?
A: We want to have it so students can be successful and can do something that gets them where they want to be. One of the things I said in my interview: You tend to get a lot of students who see an MD (medical doctor) degree as what they want to do when they get into college.
I’ve seen that, and everybody I’ve talked to said that’s what you see with first-year students: They all are pre-med. It’s pretty prestigious, of course, to be a doctor. But they all know that as a job, too, they’ve seen it. But they don’t know what all the other things are to do in the world: field biologists, and research, and all these things — you just don’t run into all those different kind of jobs every day. It’s great that they’re interested in biology, that’s probably what got them excited.
That’s one thing I like to emphasize. A lot of what is taught as science in school, even through some of the first courses in college, is demonstrations. You do a thing in lab, everybody knew what was supposed to happen there. Science, I think, sometimes becomes boring for some students, because it seems like a lot of facts to memorize.
Certainly any discipline has its basic things that you have to know. I say to students, “To read, you have to learn the alphabet. But once you know it, you don’t have to study the alphabet every time you get ready to read.”
To do science, you have to know all this background information. But really, the exciting part for me of science, is that you’re asking a question that you don’t know the answer to, you’re asking a question that no one knows the answer to, really. You’re trying to figure out why something happens or what lives where or all these things.
I’d like to make sure we show that.
We certainly would want to try to make it so students who want to try to go to med school and can do it are successful.
Q: One of the things you hit on there: Science and math are two subjects that people seem to either love or hate. Why do you think that is?
A: I don’t think anybody can hate science. It’s presented in the wrong way, possibly, if that’s the case. It’s curiosity. Isn’t everyone curious about something? Anything can be incorporated into science.
We’re reaching a point in science where we actually have the capability — I just came from a campus with a major research institute that had the ability to screen through a million compounds a day. The only thing they lacked was a million compounds. The robot could do it that fast.
Q: Science, the STEAM, the STEM — those are big priorities with the state right now. How do you plan to come at that?
A: People want to fund science and that’s great. I don’t agree with the notion that other disciplines can’t also be useful.
Everybody should have some background in science. The state also has just recently made it sort of core curriculum requirement for everyone in the state schools to take social science and humanities and things like that, too. There is some understanding that to have some broad knowledge is good.
I think critical thinking and creativity. One of the things I saw on the web page that described the biology program here, when I first saw the ad they had on the web page, it said are you a curious creative person. I said, wow, that’s great that they said creative. Science needs to be creative.
That’s the thing this country has always had an advantage with. We do let people explore and be somewhat creative. I hear fears that, oh no, we’re dropping behind China. Everybody in China can do calculus. Then I say, OK, so what have they done with that?
We still are the place that they all try to come to for graduate school.
I think everybody should be literate in math, of course. But should we drive everybody all the way through calculus? No. It’s a lot of effort to force people to do things. We don’t really need everybody in the world to do calculus. Basic statistics would be a lot more helpful.
Q: Is there a challenge for you to recruit people to these fields? Do you see that?
A: I’ll have to go talk to the admissions and see what we can do about recruiting. The college I just came from, we were the honors college, you have to talk with them (students and their families) and explain to them what the benefits of coming to a small place are. This is very much like that.
You can get the personal attention. Some of the big state universities are very competitive, and everybody believes they need to go there. But if you really want to do some research, good luck to you, because there are 5,000 other people there who have credentials just as good as yours who also want to be in the lab.
Here, if a student really wants to work in a lab, they’ll probably get a spot in one. You’ll actually have a better chance to get into a program.
If you can come to a place that’s going to help you do what you want to do and also stay in a place that’s as nice as this, why move up to somewhere that’s not as nice when you can get as good or better education with much more personal attention here?
That’s just one thing.
Right now, the majority of the students who come here are local; part of that is because there’s no dormitories. The other half of it is, it’s less expensive when you don’t have to pay for dorms.
I would like to see some effort, really, if someone wanted to have something like that around here, I think that would be great.
Someday I’d even like to start recruiting out of state. It would be easy. You send out a postcard in the middle of January to Buffalo, N.Y.
Q: Are you looking for growth in the college, in terms of enrollment?
A: Sure. I would like to see a couple things. Like I said, I’d like to go and talk with admissions. If we’re going to be directing students into medical fields that are pretty competitive, you have to have competitive students.
We need to balance the increased admissions standard with the fact that we do want to have classes that are full. The classes are small, though. To keep those two things balanced. We’d like to be a place that people seek out and have a waiting list for. Ideally, you’d want people to want to come here.
Parents and students and the state also have in interest in people actually having something to do afterward.
I think the critical thinking part is one of the most important things to be employable. If you can write and think, a lot of jobs just require a college degree. Any major here will be able to get you that.
You can do things at a small school that you can’t do with 400 people in a class, like presentations. For that to be the first time you have to do that, to be in a job, imagine, it would be terrifying.
Back to how we’re going to balance all of this: We need another building. That’s a main priority. For a science building on this campus. This building is essentially full right now. So in order to grow the student body, which I think would be a long-term goal, and to have more science labs, we need a new building for offices for research labs for classrooms.
I think we can certainly attract enough students to justify having a new building, and when we get that we’ll certainly hire the faculty to increase the programs.
Q: What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
A: My wife and I like to go out to eat a lot. Every weekend, we usually try a few places. I certainly think we’ll be exploring a lot around here. We like to try the new local breweries that have sprung up all over the world, apparently. I’m glad to see there are three or four of those. I study yeast, so it makes some sense. I don’t do stuff on brewing, but close enough.
I do some fishing, I’m interested to see what lives in the water on this side. I used to do that over on the other coast.
I like to work on cars. I built myself an electric car many years ago, it’s waiting for me to put the batteries in it. I drove it for a few years. It’s not a Chevy Volt by any means, or a Tesla. I took the engine out and loaded it up with golf cart batteries and drove it around.
It lacked air conditioning. That was major. I actually rigged up a circulating cold water system that circulated cold water on my back, too, while I drove. There’s the creativity. I helped my dad build one in the ’70s. He was an auto mechanic.
I guess I did it just to see if I could do it. That was my dangerous scientist.