Two principles should guide the development of a National Scholars Program. First, we advocate an honors approach, one that focuses on a subset of talented students to assure that they will excel. By excel we mean achieving at a level so as to be recognized as among the very best students at a college or university. Passing certain courses and graduating are significant accomplishments, but they do not necessarily signal high academic achievement or equip students to be successful in a challenging doctoral program. A National Scholars Program is intended to exemplify academic excellence. It should identify talented, well-prepared students who will be dedicated and highly motivated in their academic pursuits. They, in turn, will be supported and nurtured in a demanding academic curriculum.
The second principle is the involvement of faculty in all aspects of the development, implementation, and leadership of a National Scholars Program. We urge this not just as a matter of academic credibility but also in terms of a discipline, department-centered approach. When we speak of a National Scholars Program, in reality we mean an educational process that is centered around teaching and research carried out by faculty, not a special program with separate staff that is distinct from the academic departments. In "Studying Students Studying Calculus," Uri Triesman points to past student affirmative action programs staffed by "very caring people . . . devoting their professional lives to helping minority students avoid failure, "[b]ut hav[ing] very little, if any connection to the faculty" (Treisman 1992). He concludes that such programs— coupled with the creation of remedial courses leading to nowhere—were not producing math and science majors.
Each consortium should provide a set of "non-negotiable" program elements that will form the educational core of a National Scholars Program. None of these is novel or revolutionary, and some are even regarded as commonplace. Nonetheless, all would benefit from careful consideration of how they can be most effectively carried out and what they can realistically be expected to accomplish. In this chapter we explain how we think these program elements should be implemented, and, in so doing, we are speaking about the quality and content of the educational experiences of students. Through this commentary, the distinctive character of a National Scholars Program will become evident.
A prerequisite for a National Scholars consortium is a strong academic program. We expect the participating undergraduate institutions to have high quality academic programs in mathematics, the physical sciences, and engineering. By strong academic program we mean that the undergraduate program should afford students challenging opportunities to develop the intellectual skills and knowledge foundation that a department's faculty determine to be necessary for competency in the discipline. Departmental faculty should articulate clear pedagogic goals for the teaching program, including explicit agreement about what is expected of the students. The disciplinary departments would be expected to provide appropriate support structures to assist all students in meeting the high academic standards established by the institution. In other words, it would be useful to look at the department as a developer of talent rather than as a gatekeeper to the profession.