2005: Jeanne Narum's Opening Remarks in China

November, 2005

Sino-U.S. Pro-seminar on Transforming the Undergraduate STEM Learning Environment

On behalf of the PKAL team, may I express our pleasure in being here– to continue discussion with old friends, to meet new colleagues who share our commitment to ensuring that 21st century students– in your country and ours– have access to robust learning environments in STEM.

Why do we talk about robust, discovery– or inquiry-based learning environments? Because our goal is to transform students into the creative engineers and scientists the world needs by giving them first-hand experience with the work of practitioners in these fields.

Why do we talk about the learning environment? Because our objective is to build structures of policies, practices and programs so the entire system focuses continually on strengthening student learning.

My responsibility here is to give you some background on PKAL: who we are, how we evolved, our plans for the future. We believe the PKAL experience will inform the planning that takes place in coming months for a potential, multi-year collaboration that grows out of this pro-seminar.

First: what is Project Kaleidoscope? We are perhaps a uniquely American initiative– an informal alliance of colleges and universities across our country that are working to build robust learning environments for undergraduates in STEM fields.

We are supported in three ways, by:

  • from the U.S. National Science Foundation, beginning in 1989 and continuing
  • by private and corporate foundations that share a commitment to a robust U.S. scientific community for the future.
  • participating campuses where there are leaders who understand the urgency of reforming STEM:
    • the increasing need for workers in an economy in which science & technology influence all we do
    • the increasing need for citizens in all walks of life who understand how science & technology influence how the live and work.

All reasons you, as leaders in Chinese universities, know as well.

The support from the NSF for our work is critical. Indeed– it was NSF itself (a public agency) that in the mid-1980's recognized that STEM education in the U.S. was “dismal” and began mounting a series of efforts to change the system– so that American students, science and society were better served. NSF provided support for the assembling of a cadre of academic leaders who at that time were recognized nationally as pioneers in the work of transforming undergraduate science. This is emphasize that not everything was dismal– some places around the country were “getting it right.” It was representatives from those campuses who were the first leadership of PKAL; this is probably similar to this group gathered here– people who really care about the future of the global scientific and technological communities.

Before I complete the story of lessons learned from the PKAL experience, I must report that:

  • the last twenty years has been a time of remarkable energy and exploration in STEM reform in America. Each of the PKAL delegation has a rich and valuable connection with a major national reform effort– beyond PKAL. If you ask them, they will tell you about major activities relating to the work of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, about NSF’s Distinguished Teaching Scholar award and their Undergraduate Chemistry Research Centers. They will also be able to describe how new pedagogies are responding to research on how people learn, and are reflecting best uses of new technologies...and more.

PKAL is something like an umbrella organization that works to ensure that these scattered initiatives (and other– including work by disciplinary societies) are coordinated so they have the largest impact on the largest number of students/ institutions/ broad Science & Technology community.

This is a key PKAL lesson learned, that collaborations have the potential for greater impact/ long-term impact.

Some lessons learned from the PKAL experience:

  • tackle the work of STEM reform as you do science– figure out the question, issue, problem, what is happening and why
  • determine who else is wrestling with similar issues, find those making progress, build on those efforts– DO NOT start from scratch!
  • begin to shape new theories about what works that inform what you are doing– in applying the theory
  • the focus has to be on solutions– not problems

For example, if we understand that the issue here today is how to build a learning environment that turns 21st century students into leaders for the global, 21st Science & Technology community. Our PKAL approach would be to have each of you describe your personal success in doing just that– and your vision for how the larger community– (U.S./Chinese collaboration) might work to scale-up and institutionalize such isolated successes.

I cannot over-emphasize the importance of conversations, discussions and dialogue about what works; about visions for the future. We met monthly for 18 months (no internet!) at the beginning of PKAL, and these were very open and free. So, another lesson learned from those discussions is the value of having diverse experiences/expertise/ways of looking at the issue when big reforms are being tackled.

In the late 1980's, Project Kaleidoscope was the first group tackling undergraduate STEM reform to bring together faculty and administrators from a variety of responsibilities and disciplines, together with officials from public and private agencies. PKAL facilitates and spotlights important, critical conversations about STEM reform; we try to help people ask the right questions, and to use the scientific process in the work of reform, and, to have all the right people at the table at all times.

But two things need to be emphasized about the work of PKAL to se t the stage for this pro-seminar

  • PKAL’s focus has also been on the student. Recognizing the dismal state of undergraduate STEM in the mid-1980's we wanted to make it different for coming generations of students. We knew only if we did so would American science and technology be well-served. The student focus is a key, but, this is equally important.
  • PKAL focuses on action. We have sponsored over 175 events– small seminars, large national events– since 1991 and each person/institutional team leaves with an “agenda for action knowing: a) what they are expected and committed to do; b) how what they will do fits into the larger national effort to transform STEM education.

So, some critical questions: Why are we here? How do this PKAL delegation to China fit into PKAL’s future agenda for action?

You will se in the PKAL brochure our mission, vision, goals, strategies and actions crafted in 2004 after receiving a new NSF grant. Our focus on the future, and PKAL itself is a learning organization and it has been increasingly clear that our students– if they are to be 21st century leaders in Science & Technology fields, need a global awareness.

It was Bruce Alberts, in early 2000, when he was President of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, who said to me “Jeanne– the time is now for the same kind of collaborations in science education and science education research that is common in the communities of research scientists and practicing engineers.” Dr. Albert’s stressed the time is now– in the education realm– for the same reasons it is imperative for professionals:

  • the Science & Technology problems and opportunities in the 21st century have no geographic boundaries.
  • “The time is now” also reflects the availability of technologies that make the conversations, the building and the sharing of information and data so easy– we have no excuse but to collaborate.

So, we have come to China with a group of scholars, leading academic scientists and administrators who are recognized by their American peers as leaders in STEM reform. But, let me be certain to inform you clearly that we do not have all the answers and perhaps that we have not even identified all the right questions. So, we have come to learn from you and to explore if a collaborative effort in STEM reform might facilitate our individual efforts and better serve our students and our global society.

The American National Science Foundation is willing to work with us in shaping a collaboration. We are pleased William Chang is now resident liaison in China (Beijing). Dr. Chang was at the table at NSF during all our negotiations with NSF so he knows well our work. So, the future for PKAL is one in which we continue to assemble leaders, experienced practitioners of reform and enable them to be even more effective by ensuring the structures and systems are in place that supports them well.

This is hard work and it would take more time than I have now to describe some of the challenges in building effective collaborations.

Let me end with a charge from the 1st PKAL National Colloquium in 1991:

“We must collaborate– the task is too large and the time to short to do otherwise.”