As a nation, the United States is creating opportunities and challenges for the future that may be unparalleled in recorded human history. However, as was heralded in a publication some 15 years ago (National Commission on Excellence in Education. 1983) and as indicated by the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), educationally we are still very much a nation at risk (Pister and Rowe, 1993; National Research Council, 1997e; National Assessment of Educational Progress, 1997; U.S. Department of Education, 1998a).
During the years immediately following the launch of Sputnik, the United States overhauled its educational system to encourage the training of science and engineering specialists needed to meet the technological and military challenges presented by the Soviet Union. In succeeding years, our nation has defined the leading edge for most scientific and technical fields, and advancements in these fields have played an ever-increasing role in the life of our nation and its citizens.
As has been well documented, the scientific literacy of most Americans has not kept pace with the central role that science and technology play in their personal lives or in their communities. Indeed, to be effective in tomorrow's society, people will need to be able to think more analytically about events, objects, and processes and to analyze them in the context of natural phenomena (e.g., Rutherford and Ahlgren, 1990; National Education Goals Panel, 1997).
"If the United States is to ensure a competitive workforce which possesses the necessary scientific and technological skills to fill the jobs of the future and compete in a global economy, we must develop the mathematics and science skills of all of our students, not simply the very best."
National Education Goals Panel, 1997, pg. 9
National and state standards-based reforms in grades K-12 across the country have the potential to change fundamentally the ways in which all primary and secondary students learn science and mathematics. While this potential has not yet been realized uniformly, increasing numbers of pre-college students are learning through reform-based teaching and methods. Increasingly, college and university faculty find that they are being challenged to guide the postsecondary SME&T education of students with heterogeneous experiences and interests. For several important reasons, change in lower-division undergraduate education is key:
Lower-division undergraduate science and mathematics education prepares a large proportion of the nation's leaders. Most of our nation's leaders—policy- and decision-makers—matriculate at institutions of higher education. Because most of them do not pursue formal career tracks in science, mathematics, or engineering, the undergraduate years are the last time that they—and most other undergraduate students—are asked to think broadly about SME&T in any formal way. Nonetheless, these graduates will go on to have an impact on scientific research, technological advances, and the resolution of technologically related issues through their work
- (e.g., in public policy and law) or as voters and consumers.
"Not long ago, a college chemistry professor grew angry with the way her daughter's high school chemistry class was being taught. She made an appointment to meet with the teacher and marched with righteous indignation into the classroom-only to discover that the teacher was one of her own former students."
Yates, 1995, pg. 8B
Because of existing and new requirements for teacher certification in many states, lower-division undergraduate science and mathematics education will need to prepare the next generation of teachers more rigorously. The same faculty who teach these courses for pre-service students also will need to become more engaged with professional development for many practicing teachers. If current projections hold, up to two million college graduates will be needed in the next decade to serve as grade K-12 teachers (Darling-Hammond, 1997). The quality of science and mathematics education that these graduates received as undergraduates could have a direct impact on the amount of mathematics or science their K-12 students study and may contribute to the level of student achievement in these subjects (e.g., mathematics: Hawkins et al., 1998; science: O'Sullivan et al., 1998; see also Education Trust, 1998). Many of these students will eventually enroll in the nation's colleges and universities. As called for in National Research Council and other reports, if inquiry-based and standards-based teaching and learning are increasingly accepted as the prevailing educational paradigms for K-12 education, postsecondary institutions will need to respond, especially by including these techniques in the preparation of prospective teachers and the continuing education of current teachers.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (1989, 1991), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1993), and the National Research Council (1996b) all have contributed to high-quality national standards in K-12 science and mathematics. The International Technology Education Association has developed Standards for Technology Education (the publication of which is expected in early spring of 1999) in a complementary style to the previous standards efforts. To date, statewide curriculum frameworks have been enacted by more than 25 states (Council of Chief State School Officers, 1997). Like the national efforts, these state frameworks also define what students should know and be able to do in science, mathematics, and technology throughout the K-12 years.4 These K-12 standards can assist undergraduate institutions in defining minimum entrance requirements in SME&T. These standards also could be used to restructure current standardized testing programs in mathematics and to construct standardized tests in science and technology that could be administered to all students who seek to pursue higher education. Thus, agencies such as the Educational Testing Service and the American College Testing Program could be important partners in and contributors to the improvement of undergraduate SME&T education.
Lower-division undergraduate science and mathematics education sets the stage for career scientists, mathematicians, and
- engineers who will become the next generation of postsecondary faculty. Of the students who pursue careers in science, mathematics, or engineering, a significant fraction become faculty members at the nation's two- and four-year colleges and universities. If current trends continue, many of these students will not have received even minimal training in the practice of teaching during their graduate or postdoctoral years. Instead, they will assume faculty positions with only vague knowledge about effective teaching practice, about the ways students learn, or about the literature that can inform them and help them improve their teaching. Many of these new faculty members will use teaching practices that they themselves encountered as undergraduates. Future teachers who, in turn, take courses from these faculty also may adopt similar techniques to teach their own students, so a kind of cycle continues. Lack of background and skills in teaching, meager or nonexistent institutional programs for ongoing faculty development, and an academic culture that sometimes emphasizes performance in research more than in teaching are all factors that work against innovation in and new approaches to undergraduate SME&T instruction. Thus, the structure of graduate and postdoctoral programs directly influences the quality of undergraduate instruction in science and mathematics and, in turn, the future of K12 SME&T education.
Breaking this cycle—or improving its outcome—is particularly important given recent studies that suggest that many students who enter colleges intent on becoming SME&T majors change their plans after taking introductory SME&T courses. Many of these students report that a major consideration in their decision to switch to other majors is the quality of teaching they encountered in those introductory courses (Seymour and Hewitt, 1997).
Thus, all SME&T faculty, departments, programs, and SME&T colleges should consider the following kinds of questions as they examine their SME&T education programs: Are we providing all of our students with the kinds of effective teaching techniques and meaningful educational experiences that truly excite them about SME&T? Do we actively engage students in SME&T in ways similar to how we work as scientists, mathematicians, or engineers, given that the vast majority of students in our introductory courses will never again have formal exposure to our disciplines? Are we providing them with the intellectual skills and background they will need to appreciate and continue learning about SME&T throughout their lives? Are we helping our students understand "real world" applications of SME&T? Do we make explicit connections between our disciplines and others in the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities in our courses and when advising students?
The conclusions and recommendations in this report of the National Research Council's Committee on Undergraduate Science and Education (CUSE) are based on five years of surveying the scholarly research on improving science education and discussions with faculty, administrators, higher education organizations, and other leaders in the higher education community, many of whom participated in the "Year of Dialogue" (see Appendix A). The emphasis of the report is on change in undergraduate SME&T education principally at the lower-division level for all students, not just those who will pursue a major in one of the SME&T disciplines. The need for change and how to accomplish it is articulated through a series of visions and strategies. Supporting evidence or background is given for each vision as well as for the strategies for implementing the required changes.
These strategies are directed to two primary audiences: 1) executive and academic officers
and 2) individual faculty members and their departments. It is critical that academic administrators and faculty work collaboratively to address the issues articulated in this report. To help facilitate this process, these strategies are juxtaposed in the Executive Summary and elaborated in the main report.
The committee would like to emphasize, however, that in the dialogue that members hope will take place on college and university campuses after the release of this report, the voices of many people on campus will be heard. These voices should include not only those of chief academic officers and faculty in schools of education and in the SME&T disciplines but also directors of campus teaching and learning centers, information technology policy-makers, officers in SME&T disciplinary societies and education organizations, and graduate school faculty and deans.
CUSE members acknowledge that numerous local, regional, and national reform efforts to improve undergraduate SME&T education have been undertaken to date, and some high-quality programs are already in place. However, CUSE members contend that broader efforts are needed by all postsecondary institutions. Undergraduate SME&T education at all postsecondary institutions needs to be made accessible and relevant to more students. Teaching methods that recognize and accommodate the different learning styles of today's diverse student body need to be embraced. Postsecondary SME&T faculty should add value to all students' education by structuring courses in ways that allow students to gain deeper insights and understanding of the SME&T disciplines during their undergraduate experiences than they achieved in their pre-college years.
At present, many college-bound students have up to 12 years of exposure to various aspects of science and mathematics before entering college, but most do not take more than one year of courses in these subjects as undergraduates. This is despite the fact that many of them will then go on to pursue careers or other activities that require some understanding and appreciation of the nature and limits of SME&T. No college or university can hope to make all of its students truly "literate" in the content of even one SME&T subdiscipline, given the rapid advances in virtually all areas of SME&T. However, postsecondary institutions can provide much better educational value for every undergraduate student by incorporating into the curriculum the concepts and methods of basic science, mathematical reasoning, technological application, the connections among these disciplines, and their relationship to societal concerns. Multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary courses and curricula can provide students with this increasingly important perspective of SME&T.
Readers will note that while this report, its visions, and many of its strategies address the breadth of undergraduate SME&T education, many of the report's examples of innovative practice are drawn from undergraduate science education. The committee would like to note here that many of the issues being debated in science education also apply to mathematics, engineering, and technology education. For example, the issues and recommendations addressed in Engineering Education: Designing an Adaptive System (National Research Council, 1995a) are quite congruent with the issues raised and the strategies for implementation in this report. In addition, many of the federal agencies that support science education (e.g., the National Science Foundation) are calling for greater integration among the disciplines. This report addresses the larger SME&T community in that spirit, as well.
Reaching students who will become teachers of grades K-12 and those who are unlikely to have further formal exposure to science or technology beyond their college years is especially important. Thus, every introductory SME&T course, regardless of student audience or type of postsecondary institution at which the course is offered, should stress the nature and applications of SME&T and the connections among these disciplines
in addition to the content associated with a particular discipline. Here again, a multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning about SME&T could be valuable, especially for this population of students.
After reading this report, one might reasonably ask whether undergraduate education in SME&T could possibly be transformed to the extent proposed by the committee. The committee believes that it can be, largely because of the inherent academic strength of our colleges and universities and the nationwide interest in improving education: these both offer an unparalleled opportunity for all postsecondary institutions to provide the kind of quality SME&T education that all undergraduates need.
Individual colleges and universities need not address the issues involved in isolation. Innovative courses, curricula, and pedagogical approaches are already being developed and tested at many types of colleges and universities across the United States. Our highest elected and appointed leaders, public and private foundations, and prominent research scientists and policy-makers have identified SME&T literacy for all students at the pre-college and undergraduate levels as a top priority for the nation. Specific recommendations for action are available (e.g., Clinton and Gore, 1994; National Academy of Sciences, 1997; National Research Council, 1982, 1989, 1991, 1995a, 1996a; National Science Foundation, 1996b; Howard Hughes Medical Institute, 1995, 1996a), and many funding sources (both public and private) are now providing considerable financial support to catalyze innovation and change in undergraduate SME&T education (e.g., Howard Hughes Medical Institute, 1996b; National Science Foundation, 1998a).