FROM ANALYSIS TO ACTION
Undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology is a critical determinant of our national future. The undergraduate years are the springboard to advanced education for students who choose to major and then pursue graduate work in science, mathematics, and engineering—students who will help create the world in which we all live. The undergraduate years are the last opportunity for rigorous academic study of these subjects by many of the future leaders of our society—the executives, government officers, lawyers, clergy, journalists, and others who will have to make momentous decisions that involve science and technology. Colleges and universities prepare the elementary and secondary teachers who impart lifelong knowledge and attitudes about science and technology to their students. And undergraduate institutions help train many of the technical support personnel who will keep our technological society functioning smoothly in the years to come.
Today, a quiet revolution is under way in the teaching of undergraduate science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. Courses that have resembled nothing so much as their 19th century precursors are beginning to change, as students and instructors realize that employment and citizenship in the 21st century will require radically different kinds of skills and knowledge. A new generation of faculty is questioning the contemporary constraints of academic life and looking at new ways to balance the teaching
of students with other priorities. Departments and institutions are acknowledging that their responsibilities extend beyond producing the next generation of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and technicians; they are recognizing that the challenge also is to equip students with the scientific and technical literacy and numeracy required to play meaningful roles in society.
How did this revolution get started? Undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology has been a collage of successes and disappointments. On the success side, the diversity of institutions and courses of study in these subjects gives students a lengthy menu of options and opportunities. Many students emerge from these courses with valuable skills that have immediate application in their lives and their jobs. Undergraduate education continues to produce highly motivated and capable students who will go on to graduate school and become the scientists, engineers, and mathematicians upon whom our society so heavily depends.
But in addition to these strengths are some emerging weaknesses.
Many undergraduates do not receive enough education in these subjects. From some of the most prestigious institutions in the country, it is possible for students to graduate with not more than six percent of their work in the sciences and technology.
Many classes rely on textbooks heavy on “coverage” but weak on example, so that students are exposed to encyclopedias of fact without ever engaging in the process that is science.
Drop-out rates from science major programs are alarmingly high.
Faculty members who teach in the sciences, mathematics, and engineering often are occupied with exciting programs of investigation, but their students only rarely get to experience these programs.
Future science teachers for elementary and secondary school programs, who are essential if there is to be overall improvement in the system, are not being encouraged and are not graduating in adequate numbers.
Leaders in research intensive, high-technology industries increasingly complain that the graduates they recruit lack vital knowledge and skills they will need in the workplace.
Administrators, faculty members, and students involved in undergraduate science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education are now engaged in a Year of National Dialogue that is meant to consolidate and extend areas of strength and efforts to remedy weaknesses. The Exxon Education Foundation is sponsoring four major regional symposia and a number of smaller forums through 1996 to focus attention on important issues and build consensus on promising approaches. The National Research Council and National Science Foundation have initiated a number of other activities that will examine all facets of undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. The aim is to establish a common vision of what undergraduate preparation in these vital subjects should be, and how higher education can achieve that vision.
The Year of National Dialogue was inaugurated by a national convocation held at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., on April 9-11, 1995. Co-sponsored by the National Research Council and the National Science Foundation, the convocation brought together representatives of all the major segments of higher education for the first time under the auspices of the nation's most august scientific, engineering, and medical academies. Participants represented two-year colleges, technical schools, liberal arts colleges, comprehensive institutions, research universities, professional societies, foundations, and government. The gathering embodied both the diversity and the unity of higher education.
Before the convocation, all participants received a 44-page “challenge paper” that laid out the central issues and posed a number of questions for discussion. The paper was divided into three broad sections. The first focused on the goals of undergraduate education in science, mathematical engineering, and technology; the second on how faculty could contribute to achieving those goals; and the third on the role of institutions in meeting the goals of undergraduate education. Each section of the paper, in turn, considered four or five specific issues, which formed the basis for discussions during smallgroup workshops at the convocation.
The conclusions and recommendations that emerged from the workshops, which are summarized in the appendix to this report, underwent several subsequent levels of refinement and consolidation. First, workshop representatives from each of the three broad categories came together to compare and combine their findings. Then the workshop representatives and convocation leaders sorted themselves by professional roles— college presidents and deans, tenured faculty, foundation representatives, and so on—to do a cross-cutting analysis of the recommendations. The result was a set of findings that commanded widespread agreement among the almost 300 convocation participants.
This report, which is a product of the steering committee for the convocation, summarizes the main conclusions of the event. Given that the convocation involved several
hundred participants with diverse backgrounds and points of view, finding common ground was not an easy task. Science education, unlike the doing of science itself, is an activity for which outcome measures are difficult to obtain and in which “evidence” in the usual sense is often unavailable. Judgment, experience, and opinion often have to substitute for data. Given these limitations, a remarkable degree of consensus emerged from the convocation with regard to the basic directions of prospective change.
The phrase “science literacy” occurred repeatedly during the discussions, perhaps more often than any other term. Its prominence reflected two convictions: that science training is good preparation for a wide variety of societal roles; and that the nation will depend increasingly on a citizenry with a solid base of scientific and technical understanding. If Americans are not “literate” in this sense, they will be unable to participate meaningfully in resolving the large proportion of national issues that have heavy scientific and technical content.
Science literacy means the capacity to understand, at least at an elementary and inquisitive level, the phenomena of nature and the products of human technological endeavor. How do wetlands “filter ” water supplies? How do our muscles work? How is it that a boat can sail at a speed faster than that of the wind propelling it? The “outside” world—our environment—and the “inside” world—our bodies—constantly raise such questions for us. The answers not only give us understanding and an enhanced joy in both worlds; they ultimately equip us to make wise and humane decisions about the problems our society faces—from ozone holes to health care policy, from risk assessment to family planning.
Thus one recommendation emerged from all the others as conveying a fundamental conviction of the assembled group:
All students should have access to supportive, excellent programs in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology, and all students should acquire literacy in these subjects by direct experience with the methods and processes of inquiry.
This conclusion, though simply stated, is audacious in its implications. It looks to a future in which science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education incorporates open-ended investigations in which students are fully engaged with the ideas and method-
ologies of the disciplines they are studying. It looks to a future in which many undergraduates get degrees in science, mathematics, or engineering not because they necessarily want to work in those fields but because those subjects are superb training for whatever it is they want to do. It looks to a future in which English majors, for example, emerge from college not fearful and distrustful of science and technology but familiar with their basic principles and outlooks —and in which science majors can express themselves fluently, both orally and in writing, as a result of the experiences they have in college.
Three other broad conclusions emerged from the convocation—one from each section of the challenge paper—that provide means for achieving this overarching goal. First, convocation participants concluded that:
Departments and programs should define their missions and establish explicit educational goals; they should be evaluated against those goals by fair assessments that are as rigorous as those applied for research; and they should be rewarded both as groups and as individuals for success in reaching these goals.
This conclusion calls for major changes in the culture that presently surrounds undergraduate teaching. It requires that departments and institutions come together to establish common objectives that actually have an effect on what transpires in classrooms, laboratories, and seminar rooms. It requires that assessments of teaching and learning be devised and implemented that can drive progress toward agreed-upon goals. And it implies a collective responsibility for instruction, as opposed to the current laissez-faire tradition that leaves the instruction students receive entirely in the hands of individual faculty members.
The second conclusion focuses more explicitly on the responsibility of faculty. It states that:
Institutions must promote a new balance and a new linkage between teaching and research, so that teaching is enlivened by investigation and research is defined more broadly, and so that faculty may be rewarded for educational scholarship as well as for other kinds of scholarship.
Considerable uncertainty surrounds the vital matter of what institutional value is attached to the different kinds of professional work. Faced with this uncertainty, faculty members are apt to stress the one activity for which relatively clear objectives and
rewards exist: research that results in peer-reviewed publications. Yet the distortions that result from a single-minded attention to research divorced from teaching are evident: buy outs of teaching time in favor of research; a haunting sensation that time spent preparing a lecture is time taken away from research; admonitions of elders to forget about teaching until one has tenure; funds available for travel to research meetings but not to develop teaching skills; and most of all a virtual absence in many institutions of informed discussion about what makes for good teaching.
Universities need to be more inclusive in their definition of what constitutes both scholarship and teaching. Within the formal curricula there is room for a greatly revised and expanded view of teaching —one that brings it closer to real scholarship and demonstrates the real (though often neglected) linkages between teaching and research. In addition, “scholarship” can and should encompass a much broader range of activities than those now defined as essential for academic success. Examples might include software designed for teaching but unusual in the way it deals with what is known; critical or synthetic analyses of a field; textbooks that take a novel or especially effective approach; case materials or studies that present a policy issue in new light; or even videos aimed at increasing popular understanding of an issue. These might be assembled by the candidate or a committee of colleagues into a special section of achievement devoted to “forms of scholarship related to teaching”—or, perhaps better, scholarship beyond that reported in peer-reviewed scientific or technical journals.
The third conclusion that emerged from the convocation relates to the role of institutions and departments as administrative units in academic life:
Institutions and departments should promote educational innovation both through broad cultural change and through providing the resources and support needed for effective teaching.
Undergraduate education will not change in a permanent way through the efforts of “Lone Rangers.” Change requires ongoing interaction among communities of people and institutions that will reinforce and drive reform. And replication is essential: innovations and successes in education need to spread with the speed and efficiency of new research results. With the support of institutions, foundations, and federal agencies, educators need to form “invisible colleges” resembling the national and international research communities.
The convocation noted that the weaknesses of undergraduate science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education are not inherent in the enterprise. There is under way an explosion of new ideas, new technologies, and new methods for improving the
quality of undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. Faculty members are developing classroom techniques and laboratories that engage students more actively in learning. Departments and institutions are creating communities of learners that generate much higher levels of interest in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. New information technologies are personalizing electronic instruction and are creating groups of learners who, although widely separated physically, are closely linked intellectually. Colleges and universities have established partnerships with businesses, schools, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies that support the missions of all.
The overall picture emerging from the convocation is one of striking contrasts. Twentieth-century science, mathematics, and engineering have become major forces of human progress and social change. They have not only created the technologies on which modern life is based; they have forged an entirely new view of the world, one based on close observation and creative insight. Yet undergraduate education in these subjects—where one would expect to find large and enthusiastic communities of students and faculty—often is hampered by outmoded instructional techniques, discipline fragmentation, and curricular inertia.
Beyond the broad conclusions stated above, the steering committee noted the frequent appearance of a number of other issues at the convocation.
There was a strong consensus that the professional training and development of future faculty members places too little emphasis on teaching and teaching improvement. As noted above, this has much to do with faculty rewards and incentives. But organization and the effective deployment of resources also can do much to provide a climate of improvement and the motivation to accomplish it. Institutional centers for teaching and learning, the creation of appropriate physical environments, and support for educational infrastructure can all contribute to the quality of science teaching.
Convocation participants noted that new technologies offer large potential opportunities for enhancing the quality of science teaching. However, “virtual” experiences may not be equivalent substitutes for direct laboratory exercises in many fields. Each form of activity offers different, and in many ways complementary, experiences.
The development and evaluation of new materials (whether courseware, new exercises, or texts) is often haphazard, and new products are frequently not examined systematically or centrally. Review and evaluation mechanisms, in other words, are important and often missing components of this kind of improvement.
The problem of articulation between educational institutions and between education and the workplace surfaced repeatedly. Clearly, a significant shaping of the possibilities for undergraduate education in the sciences takes place at the precollege level. States and institutions have not done all they might to ensure that some reciprocal attention is given to these transition points. Deeper college and university engagement with science teaching at the K-12 level—for example, through attention to the recently released National Science Education Standards and through careful articulation of admissions policies and requirements —would be productive. And a more thorough mutual interaction with science-based industry about transitions between university and workplace could help both participating institutions.
The needs of K-12 science education are especially strongly linked to undergraduate education. Not only does a sound precollege program depend on a flow of well-trained science teachers; sound curricula in the college years cannot be developed unless students are given a solid elementary and secondary science background on which to build. John A. Moore, a distinguished scientist and educator who has taught at Columbia University and the University of California at Riverside, puts the problem well:
“When the projected reorganization of the K-12 curriculum has been accomplished, students will receive a good grounding in all the sciences and have considerable understanding of the interrelations of the sciences with societal problems. With such a level of understanding the undergraduate curriculum can become far different from what it is today. There will be opportunities for detailed considerations a scientific component, and the historical and philosophical aspects of the sciences. There will also be the opportunity for courses devoted to broad interdisciplinary topics that will draw from the sciences, humanities, and social sciences. Undergraduate —and it should become far more rewarding not only for the students but also for their professors.”
An especially controversial area, already referred to in connection with the balance between research, involves the possible use of institutions and mechanisms primarily associated with the research venture in the interest of improving science education. There is a natural reluctance to “mix missions,” and the success of the scientific enterprise makes one hesitant to modify it. Yet its confined success depends both on the recruitment of new practitioners and on the scientific understanding of the polity that supports it. The convocation examined, perhaps cautiously, a range of mechanisms through which the research system might be modified to emphasize the teaching function. These are some of the proposals considered:
Professional societies should increase their efforts to incorporate educational research and ideas into disciplinary journals and at annual meetings.
Federal funding agencies, including the mission agencies, should require explicit statements of undergraduate research objectives in all research proposals associated with undergraduate institutions.
Postdoctoral fellows should be given opportunities to integrate teaching and research interests.
Doctoral dissertations should be required to contain material relevant to the candidate's teaching accomplishments.
The synopsis of the convocation that follows contains a number of more specific observations, recommendations, and justifications, some directed at students, some at faculty, and some at educational institutions. But there are, as the synopsis makes clear, roles for many other actors. States have significant responsibilities for public education planning, articulation, and support. The federal government, through innovative educational development and through its huge role in the support of university research, can be a vital force for improvement. Industry is both an important consumer of the human product of educational programs and, increasingly, a source of educational innovation.
Despite the importance of these entities, the protagonists in changing undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology will be those who learn and those who teach. Students now reach college with vastly disparate academic and socio-economic backgrounds, and they often encounter faculty members who have had little experience with such circumstances. The challenge is to make this encounter more productive and rewarding for both groups. The quality of K-12 education for all students needs to be improved by providing the resources, technology, and infrastructure that could enrich the experience. And a faculty “culture” needs to be established in which teaching and advising undergraduates are esteemed activities.
These changes will not come easily. Improvement in K-12 science education is under way and will be accelerated if the National Science Education Standards are widely adopted and implemented. But the teachers who will meet those standards must be prepared in our undergraduate institutions to a level more exacting than is usually reached now, and they must be ready to respond to the special needs of minority students and
others who, a generation ago, never had a chance at college. We also need to provide an “open” system that can update these teachers as progress in the sciences accelerates.
With respect to the faculty, the academic culture that sets expectations and rewards is changing, but slowly. Most faculty members in our 3,000 or so colleges and universities are trained in a hundred or so research institutions whose values are quite different from those in which many of their graduates will teach. Academic departments often find it difficult to come together on such vital matters as curriculum design and collective responsibility for teaching quality. It is even more difficult for them to collaborate across disciplines to achieve the desired “folding in” of science, mathematics, engineering, and technology with courses in, for example, the humanities.
Despite the daunting character of these difficulties, the convocation left most of its participants with a sense of optimism. Exciting new approaches abound and offer real prospects for enriching undergraduate education. Imaginative initiatives in teaching improvement are widespread and are by no means limited to the most visible institutions. Outreach from universities to K-12 is growing, minority access programs are succeeding, and more graduate students are receiving serious training in how to teach science. The convocation atmosphere was one of excitement and hope—despite the well-advertised resource limitations that bear on nearly every one of the institutions represented there.
This nation has prospered because of its leadership in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. If our educational system cannot produce the accomplished professionals, technologically skilled workers, and well-educated citizens who can make sound political decisions about issues with high technical content (and today that means most decisions), our leadership in the world will be jeopardized. The developing revolution in undergraduate education is good news for a nation whose future will depend on its ultimate success.