Occasional Paper II: What Works: Leadership— Challenges for the Future

Challenged to Collaborate

Marye Anne Fox
M. June and J. Virgil Waggoner Regents Chair in Chemistry
The University of Texas at Austin
Vice Chair--National Science Board

These are challenging times for those of us concerned with the future of undergraduate science and mathematics education. The 1986 "Neal Report," the seminal finding of the NSB Task Committee on Undergraduate Science and Engineering Education, brought several critical concerns to our attention. In this report, urgent recommendations were made for funding of undergraduate programs in science, mathematics, and engineering. Many of the recommendations in this report have yet to be acted upon and, consequently, many of its goals are yet unrealized.

We are committed to facilitating expanded partnerships between the educational community, the private sector, and government at all levels. America's scientific and technical communities employed in colleges. universities, industry and government represent an enormous resource for improving the science, mathematics, and technological education of our children. Our elementary and secondary school teachers are also an enormous resource and deserve our support. We need both to stimulate more research into the application of learning technologies and the practice of mathematics and science education, drawing upon the experience of outstanding teachers and successful programs, and to join the science education and research cultures symbiotically. Partnerships built around a common purpose are the key to the systemic reform needed in science and mathematics education. Only a cooperative effort by individuals and institutions will take us to our national education goals.

Science in the National Interest
Executive Office of the President
Office of Science and Technology Policy

More recent documents have addressed other critical issues:

  • In American Academic Future: A Report on the Presidential Young Investigator Colloquium on U.S. Engineering, Mathematics and Science Education for the Year 2010 and Beyond, some of the next generation of leaders in research argue forcefully for a balance in education and research if America's academic institutions are to succeed at the undergraduate level.
  • Federal Investment in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology Education: Where Now? What Next? Concludes that there needs to be improved coordination of programs between agencies, governmental levels, and the private sector; that current Federal programs in science, mathematics, engineering and technology education lack balance and coherence; and that standard evaluation criteria must be established to ensure that programs meet identified needs.
  • The 1992 Report of the NSB Commission on the Future of NSF recommends that science education and research respond to national needs, and that there be a balance between investments in basic and strategic research in NSF programs.
  • Technology for America's Growth: A New Direction to Build Economic Strength presents the Clinton administration's policies for economic growth. The allocation of resources continues to favor technology the National Institute of Standards and Technology is, in fact, the fastest growing agency in the federal government, with an 80% budgetary increase scheduled for 1995.

These reports provide the impetus and suggest the context for our reform efforts.

If we are to meet the challenges ahead successfully, we must forge a new mode of collaboration; we must work together and learn from each other in building a new paradigm for undergraduate education in undergraduate science and mathematics. From my perspective as a graduate of a liberal arts college and now as a faculty member at a research-intensive university, I propose that together we take the following steps:

  • First, both colleges and universities must adopt education as their primary mission, and undertake basic research as a means to fulfill the scholarly component of the educational mission.
  • We must be open to new ways of organizing colleges and universities, asking ourselves whether the taxonomy that has existed since the 1950s is appropriate.

One of the principal problems in curriculum development at research-intensive universities is that departmental distinctions sometimes obstruct interactions between departments, as well as between colleges. Thus, for example, developing a course at the introductory level would include components from mathematics, physics and biology becomes extremely difficult.

Furthermore, unless we develop comparable structural approaches for research-intensive universities as for colleges, no real progress toward reform will be made, as the curriculum in universities is acknowledged by accrediting bodies the testing mechanisms by which all students progress toward professional schools. Only if we establish some way in which to address "my field" versus "your field" on campuses of all types can a satisfactory means for systemic curriculum reform be introduced.


"Colleges and universities must articulate a vision on where science is going and where it is going to go."

Representative George E. Brown, Jr.

Departmental structure and academic taxonomy are closely related to curriculum, and changes in one will encourage changes in the other. Recently, for example, Jim Duderstadt, President of the University of Michigan, shared his ideas for addressing library structure in which holdings of one unit are associated with those in another unit. This approach may also apply to departmental organization.

Consider, for example, global change: whether you're an engineer, a social scientist, or a physicist, through such a matrix, you could address global change in a way that could be incorporated both into your curriculum and your research, and into the university's larger agenda.

  • We must develop a means through which to share instrumentation, people, and facilities. This could involve faculty exchanges, co-teaching, or development of curriculum between and among universities and colleges. The new NSF Chemistry Initiative is one example of how this might work. An example of this program in Texas involves a community college in Austin; a small, private, religious college with predominantly minority students; the University of Texas and Trinity University. Those involved with the program are trying to develop a curriculum that addresses the common parts of our disciplinary revisions, while allowing for institutional differences.
  • We must come up with a method by which internationalization is handled within our educational and research communities.
  • Finally, we must develop a way in which we can better communicate with the public, particularly with those who establish public policies and funding priorities.

Case Study: Workshop Biology at the University of Oregon

Steps Towards Reform

The following steps must be taken in order to achieve the goals that we have established for ourselves:

  • We must educate students in such a way that when they choose "for or against" science as a career, they do so on an informed basis. This must begin early on, as the educational process to become a practicing scientist is a very long one. At NSF, there has been a major effort to extend educational concepts about what works from colleges and universities through K-12, so there is a continuum of progress from kindergarten to postdoctorate work. Regardless of whether they intend on pursuing a scientific career, students must be made aware of the value of studying science.

Someone who chooses to study physics today does so with the clear recognition that it is possible, even likely, that he will not become an academic physicist. Likewise, one who enters chemistry may or may not find the kind of position in industry that she had desired originally. We have to examine whether the Ph.D. experience prepares our students for the opportunities that are available. Of course, the answer to that question reflects back to what happens at the undergraduate level. Are we preparing students sufficiently at the bachelor's level for a technical career? Or, do we insist that a Ph.D. is required for every practicing scientist? We need to have a balanced basic research portfolio which addresses legislative needs for technological development and for education. We need to better understand the social reasons for research both inside and outside of the university.

  • Our administrations must be serious about student success. Hence, resources must be allocated within universities to enable students to succeed, for example, by putting senior faculty into introductory classes. We must also have mechanisms to collect quantifiable data that document our progress.
  • We have to develop mentoring procedures by which faculty can interact successfully with students; we have to recognize that there are many methods by which mentoring can occur.

The mentoring that goes on in a small college is exactly parallel to what happens in my own research group, only the personnel are different. I run a research group with 21 full-time people graduate students and post-docs. There are five undergraduate students in this group who interact frequently with the post-docs and only occasionally with me. This differs from the interaction in Mike Doyle's lab at Trinity University, where he has about the same number of undergraduates, but more time for direct one-to-one interactions. I provide the environment in which undergraduates have one-to-one interaction with me or with the post-docs, who are often as qualified as beginning faculty. At small colleges, the students are able to interact with senior professors. As this is essentially the same process, we should come up with mutually beneficial means to communicate the effectiveness or the problems associated with this kind of interaction.

  • We need more opportunities for student learning consistent with successful pedagogical methods. For example, we know that person-to-person interactions in small groups work most effectively. Consequently, in my organic chemistry course of 270 students, I've established small study groups of peer learners, similar to those that occur naturally in small liberal arts colleges. I can do this at no financial cost to my institution. This is one of the many ways in which existing financial resources can be used more efficiently to develop common goals.
  • We must develop new patterns for institutional partnering between small colleges, community colleges, and research-intensive universities, and among the undergraduates, graduate students, faculties, and administrations within those institutions.
  • We have to come up with more innovative ways of using the equipment that is available, with enhanced cooperation between institutions. Much of the federal money available for information infrastructure is targeted towards computation. Equipping our laboratories must receive some attention in the upcoming years; the amount of funds that have been identified fore the near future is far from adequate.

Regardless of whether they intend on pursuing a scientific career, students must be made aware of the value of studying science.

The Context for Collaboration

The context that both forces and nurtures a collaboration between research-intensive universities and liberal arts colleges must be understood in our approach to reform. The current climate is one in which the role of NSF is being examined and re-articulated for our changing world. Furthermore, there is a national priority to sustain U.S. dominance in scientific, mathematical, and technological breakthroughs; and federal investment strategies must accommodate both national and academic agendas. Finally, there is a misperception among the public about what academics actually do indicative of a situation in which the science community, the public, and government officials speak different languages and have different aims.

Recognizing that an informed and supportive public is essential if we are to have an undergraduate science and mathematics community that serves the national purpose, we recommend:

  • Institutions and funding agencies work together to:

    - determine what it will cost--locally and nationally--to build and sustain a strong undergraduate sector in science and mathematics


  • - develop strategic priorities for allocation of financial resources

    - collect data on the efforts of individual students and campuses and use such data to determine a continuing national agenda for reform

  • Professional societies endorse efforts of their members engaged in reforming undergraduate science and mathematics, and take the lead in supporting a renewed concept of the role of the teacher/scholar.
  • State policy makers and funders become active supporters of undergraduate science and mathematics reform.
  • Academic leaders, individually and collectively, take every appropriate opportunity to speak publicly about what works in strong undergraduate science and mathematics programs.

PKAL Occasional Paper I
A Research-Rich Environment

In a recent Senate Appropriations Hearing for the National Science Foundation budget, the Committee declared that NSF is at a crossroads either it will evolve, or it will drift in a direction away from broad national interests. NSF must be at the forefront of shaping the administration's science and technology program in pursuit of specific national goals, or it will diminish into nothing more than a National Endowment for Science (those of you who are humanists know what that means in terms of funding).

The National Academy of Sciences Report, Science Technology in the Federal Government: New Goals for a New Era, states that the U.S. should strive to be among the world's leaders in all major areas of science, and the clear leader in selected areas chosen with consideration to our national interest.

The question is: how can we best address these national needs in terms of achievement in science? We could, of course, simply turn to our legislators and ask them to define for us what they mean by strategic research and to adjust our agendas correspondingly. Let me remind you, however, that in 1878, the British Parliament deemed Thomas Edison's new invention as unworthy of governmental investment. If we rely entirely on our legislators to make decisions about strategy or what goals we should be pursuing, we may end up following similarly misguided or shortsighted advice. Quoting George E. Brown, Jr. (D-CA), Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology: "Colleges and universities must articulate a vision on where science is going and where it is going to go."

As a nation, we hope to stimulate new industries by creating technological breakthroughs. However, the difficulty in establishing strategic goals makes it very important to invest broadly and to preserve the integrity and importance of the investment in basic research. There have been a number of terms used to describe basic research fundamental, curiosity-driven, exploratory each of which has the distinction of annoying somebody. As a nation, we do, however, recognize the value of obtaining new knowledge and making it available, both within the United States and world-wide. We also recognize that it is the application of that knowledge in terms of technology that drives the economic development of our country. We must develop new ways of building bridges between creation of knowledge and its use. To do this, we must have an information infrastructure through which communication can occur.

Colleges can contribute extremely effectively in providing that sort of bridge, both by interacting with research-intensive universities and with small companies, which tend to locate around institutions of higher education. Furthermore, we should address new ways in which we can not only cost-share for technology partnerships, but also share the cost of education.

What are the strategies that should guide us at the federal level in determining where this country should invest in order to achieve our federal investment strategies? We must ask ourselves, for example, whether we should actually cut back on the number of people in bachelor-degree programs. Should we be admitting fewer students? Or, should we convince current students the Ph.D. is not a union card guaranteeing professorship? Rather, it provides a broad background enabling them to contribute generally to society, much like what we would hope happens at the bachelor's level in liberal arts colleges.

Among the federal investment strategies must be a sound knowledge base for national guidance of policy, especially in contentious areas. Think here of the global change initiative and, particularly, how global change translates into industrial policy. Here, basic research pays off almost immediately. Is it or isn't it wise to ban the production of fluorocarbons? Should we press signatories of treaty agreements to come to a common conclusion on questions of this sort? Only if we understand the knowledge base on which decisions are made can we come up with sound policy.

Our nation's lawmakers will also be controlling the future of science education. The perspective of several of these lawmakers towards science education were expressed in a recent forum, sponsored by the Office of Science and Technology Policy:

"The public perceives that there is a great deal of waste in pointless and trivial research at our colleges and universities; there is an inability among our populace to appreciate the relevance of the work that is conducted as basic research·and dismay as technologically-driven productivity increasingly seems to throw people out of work instead of opening new opportunities for them."

These comments are indicative of the increasing skepticism from those who have been our friends the science policy establishment.

To many, scientists and educators have become special-interest groups. Our legislators view us as they do other lobbyists: resistant to change, seeking additional resources as cures to internal problems, in need of special treatment. We unselfconsciously give our own values primacy over other needs in the nation, at the same time as we strive that what we do is essential to the nation. We must begin to see ourselves in cooperation, rather than competition, with other interests.

As these investment strategies are under consideration, we will hear distant voices from voters, administrators, faculty, and our students. Our populace wants both better science education and lower taxes. We want wars on disease and, at the same time, we want to reduce the deficit. We want more targeted government industry and cooperation, but less government interference; more science projects with global impact, but no congressional earmarking. The task faced by our elected officials is a very difficult one.

The public, however, thinks primarily about training people, and, ultimately (we must remember), the public pays the bill. Consequently, the public has a right to present their concerns. In the past, we have done a lot of dancing around questions from the public. In future exchanges, we should recall the well-known first instructions to a new physician, "first do no harm," as we address reform in education.

Our Response

There are several possible responses that our community can make to dissidence in the public and the legislative arenas:

  • We can deny that there are problems. We can deny that incoherent and inconsistent demands are being made on us, and we can look for new leadership. This response, however, will not lead us towards the development of a coherent plan that addresses our real needs.
  • We can treat the public interest as a public relations problem. This has been the response of many in the scientific community. "If only the public understood what we really do in our colleges and universities, they would take their resources from other places and lavish them upon us and we would use them very efficiently." Of course, to the extent that our populace has become scientifically illiterate and unable to understand our accomplishments, this is our own problem. Nevertheless, to treat our fellow citizens as uninformed is to disregard the root of this problem.
  • Or we can use a more enlightened approach. We must approach them in unified voices with a unified plan that is highly cooperative, leveraged and efficient if we are to make any progress at all.

In summary, scientists and educators must be engaged in constant internal transformation if we are to continue to serve as national change-agents.

Scientists and educators must be engaged in constant internal transformation if we are to continue to serve as national change-agents.