College Science Education Improvements Called Vital to K-12 Reform

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Publication date: 
23 March 2006

Witnesses at a March 15 hearing on undergraduate science and math education agreed that students at many colleges and universities are not getting a good education in those subjects, that NSF should continue to take the lead in reform efforts, and that the best way to improve science and math teaching at the K-12 level is to improve the college education of future teachers. However, they also pointed out that making the changes necessary to improve science instruction at the undergraduate level is expensive, and that few incentives currently exist to prompt schools - especially large research universities - and their faculty to make such changes.

At this hearing of the House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Research, Chairman Bob Inglis (R-SC) raised questions about how to capture students' interest and draw them to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. That is America's "greatest challenge" for the future, agreed Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA): making sure today's students are "equipped to compete in the world of tomorrow." He viewed the opportunity costs and compensation levels of STEM careers as "major factors in this conversation," and complained that science and math teachers are compensated no differently than teachers of "basketweaving."

Undergraduate science education is based on "an obsolete model" and is "doing a poor job" of conveying understanding to students, declared Nobel Laureate Carl Wieman of the University of Colorado at Boulder, who used his Nobel prize money to initiate a reform effort in introductory physics. While research has indicated ways to remedy the problem, Wieman said, there are "no real incentives to make changes other than altruism." Research universities do not feel pressure to make the significant time and funding investments, he said, as their financial support, prestige, and tuition levels are unrelated to the effectiveness of their science instruction. He recommended that incentives be focused at the individual department level, but noted that "virtually none" of the federal programs for improving undergraduate science education are targeted to that level. Wieman also stated that until science education is reformed at the undergraduate level, it is a waste of time and money "trying to make major improvements in K-12."

Elaine Seymour, author of a study on why undergraduates switch out of science majors, described how the salary structure and reward system for science and math faculty has shifted over time towards research and away from teaching, leading to a "decline in the perceived value of teaching" among faculty. She cited data showing that a large percentage of both students who switched out of STEM majors and those who remained in STEM fields complained about "poor learning experiences." She called for an enhanced focus on professional development for science and math faculty and teaching assistants, as well as for current and future K-12 science and math teachers.

John Burris of Beloit College testified that his school, a small liberal arts college, has implemented many of the strategies known to improve science education, including small classes, inquiry-based, hands-on instruction, the merging of lecture and laboratory experiences, and opportunities for students to work collaboratively. He cited many obstacles facing broader implementation, including the cost and pace of changes, the need for federal and state assistance with the costs, and the lack of a coherent national effort, which he argued should be led by NSF. He recommended that a doubling of the NSF budget should include doubling of its programs to support STEM education in undergraduate institutions. (It is worth keeping in mind that in 2002 Congress passed and the President signed a bill to put the NSF budget on a path to doubling by FY 2007, but the appropriations numbers did not follow suit. More recently, the President's just-announced American Competitiveness Initiative proposes to double the budgets of NSF, DOE's Office of Science, and the NIST labs over 10 years; see
But education funding at NSF has been "slashed," noted Daniel Goroff of Harvey Mudd College. In order for the nation to achieve the goals of the American Competitiveness Initiative, he said, support for undergraduate STEM education should remain and "thrive" at NSF. Margaret Collins of Moraine Valley Community College described how NSF grants have been invaluable to the community college's STEM education efforts, helping to develop new curricula, expand internship opportunities, develop a mentoring program for women in technology fields, develop an outreach program for economically disadvantaged students, and evaluate program effectiveness.

As Congress is "getting ready to spend a fair amount of money on K-12" education, Chairman Inglis asked where that money should be focused. Wieman reiterated that undergraduate science and math preparation of K-12 teachers is "dismal" and needed to be addressed in order for K-12 reforms to be effective. Seymour agreed that unless the preparation of teachers is improved at the university level, there will be a "deeply serious national crisis in the quality of the K-12 teaching force."

To Rep. Vern Ehlers' (R-MI) question about which federal agency should take the lead in improving undergraduate STEM education, witnesses unanimously agreed with Burris's reply that "NSF is absolutely the best place - unequivocally." It is "very important that you send that message" to Congress and the President, Ehlers said, because opinion seems to have shifted away from NSF as the lead agency. Seymour identified some of NSF's efforts in educational improvement and teacher preparation, including NSF's Math and Science Partnership program, as "quite magnificent," and said such work needs to be continued. "It's particularly gratifying …to hear a resounding note of approval" of NSF's work, said Inglis in closing.

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