Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

New truths and old verities

This lead essay argues that science is everybody's business, that academic leaders must come to understand why constructing undergraduate experiences for all students that incorporate a genuine involvement in science and technology is central to their responsibility to preserve the long-term distinctiveness and viability of their particular institution and to make a significant contribution to the good of our society.

America's future-its ability Co create a truly just society, sustain its economic vitality, and remain secure in a world torn by hostilities-depends more than ever before on the character and quality of the education that the nation provides for its children.

To prepare all young people for lives of citizenship and social responsibility as well as success in a workplace increasingly shaped by science and technology will require some convictions. They are unlikely to understand any complex thinking unless during formal education they acquire a deep understanding of the ways of knowing of different fields and of the world. If during their education, they are never required to examine assumptions, acquired early, deeply embedded, and applied without thought to the challenges of daily life, they will not be responsive to the insights and knowledge generated by any discipline, including the sciences and mathematics. I am convinced that in a world where knowledge of science and technology is increasingly the passport to success, this limitation can mean a loss of opportunity and a barrier to any hopes for a reasonable quality of life.

This need leads to the things that academic leaders should keep in mind in shaping the future of the institutions for which they are responsible. Science and mathematics must be a central part of a twenty-first-century liberal arts education. Scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and technologists have their own way of thinking about and talking about the nature of our world, man-made and natural. They have their own vocabulary, their own ways of talking about ideas and problems, their own standards of proof, and their own methodologies.

All undergraduates, no matter their career aspiration, should become acquainted with these ways of knowing as approaches that are complementary to the insights offered by other fields. Students should not be asked to abandon these other ways of thinking when they cross the threshold of a science or mathematics department, but rather should be challenged to see how different ways of looking at the world can help them connect what they are learning in the classroom and lab to the world they will experience beyond the campus. We must prepare all students for lives of creativity, citizenship, and social responsibility, as well as for success in a work environment increasingly shaped by science and technology.

Not only must every student become familiar with the ways of knowing and the insights of science and mathematics, but every student must master these ideas and concepts. The mantra that has emerged in K-12 education-that no child be left behind-applies with equal power to students at the undergraduate level. Our greatest vulnerability as a nation rests in the extent to which we limit the participation of all of our young people in science and mathematics and, more important, fail to expect that all students can succeed.

Learning is doing. Students who never do any science but simply read about it or are lectured about it are likely to acquire only a sense of certainty about what is known; they will gain a false impression about the scientific way of knowing: how scientific and numeric and technological understandings are attained. Those who think that science is a product rather than a process-a messy process of inquiry-can become profoundly uncomfortable when they are brought face to face with the uncertainties and arguments in the scientific arena that surface in daily life, including those that expose science and technology at the frontier. All students need to know, from firsthand experience, the strengths and limitations of scientific and mathematical reasoning.

Students learn this best by being immersed in a discovery-based learning environment. It is important to provide genuine experiences of doing science throughout the educational experience, from preschool through graduate education; link the questions addressed in this learning environment to issues that students care about; and integrate scientific exploration with other disciplines so that all students can see how understanding the different ways of knowing lead to a deeper understanding of their world and their place in this world. When science is meaningfully connected to things young people care about, it becomes a process of learning that shapes their thinking and their lives rather than a product merely to be memorized and forgotten.

This learning by doing works best in a research-rich learning environment in which faculty are as passionate about the quality of student learning as they are about their own personal research. These faculty create a research-like environment for lower-level students, recognizing that success in learning at this stage motivates students to persist and consider careers in these fields. They also see involvement in research as the key to success for those pursuing graduate studies or technical careers. There should be tangible support for research-active faculty, at all career stages, recognizing that faculty who remain active as scholars and can share that passion with their students make a difference on campus.

We are learning, about how people learn but do not often use what we know. We know much about learning from the theoretical perspective, but there is a significant gap between what the education research and the cognitive science communities have learned about learning and how scientists, mathematicians, and engineers apply these theories in their scholarly work as teachers and curriculum designers. We need to find creative ways to close that gap by encouraging faculty to approach educational questions with the same habits of inquiry, rigor, and discipline that they bring to their research in the lab.

It is particularly important that faculty who work with graduate students prepare them to address critical educational questions: What works? How does it work? For whom does it work? and How do we know? Campuses should establish and support learning-teaching centers through which faculty become acquainted with advances in cognitive science and learn how those understandings can inform the selection of appropriate technologies, pedagogies, and assessment practices.

Strengthening the K-16 science and mathematics community is a responsibility and an opportunity for undergraduate institutions. Attention to the preparation of the generation of K-12 science and mathematics teachers so urgently needed by our nation is one potential arena for K-16 engagement. Campuses should give careful consideration to the appropriate roles for their STEM faculty in the development of teacher preparation programs, forging connections between the disciplinary departments and the education department or school.

There should also be tangible support for programs that provide opportunities for current undergraduates to work in supervised settings in K-12 classrooms and for elementary and secondary teachers to advise and learn from undergraduate faculty. For college and university faculty in STEM, the experience of working with colleagues in the education field and those from the K-12 community can open up new avenues of thinking about educational issues-how people learn-as well as develop a broader understanding of the experience of undergraduates and how to promote deeper learning of science and mathematics for all students.

A deeper understanding of the ways of knowing within different fields leads to more profound learning. Samuel Wineburg (2001) offers a helpful interpretation of the problem of public understanding of any discipline. Although he examines this question from the perspective of history, his insights apply with equal cogency to the study of science and mathematics, engineering and technology. He makes the case that "historical thinking, in its deepest forms, is neither a natural process nor something that springs automatically from psychological development" (p. 143) and argues that it is much easier to memorize facts, dates, and names of historical figures than it is "to change the basic mental structures we use to grasp the meaning of the past" (p. 146). History, in his hands, becomes an example of the challenge of any form of disciplined thinking, any process of seeking to get beyond the surface of a subject to its underlying warrants for truth.

Students are unlikely to understand the complex thinking of any discipline unless, during their formal education, they acquire a deeper understanding of the ways of knowing of that field. If they are never required to examine those deeper assumptions acquired in early years and applied without thought to the challenges of daily life, they will not be responsive to the insights and knowledge generated by any discipline, including the sciences, mathematics, and engineering.

The education of STEM majors must foster the desired qualities of a liberally educated person. In addition to learning the habits of mind and forms of expression and inquiry of science and mathematics, students majoring in a STEM field should be expected to demonstrate the qualities of a person prepared to live a life that is productive, creative, and responsible. There are many approaches to articulating the purpose of education at the undergraduate level. All involve bringing together concepts of intellectual engagement and cognitive development with the fostering of emotional maturity and social responsibility.

A college graduate should be informed, open-minded, and empathetic. These qualities are not engendered solely by general education courses during the first two years of college. Science, mathematics, and engineering departments must build these expectations into their conception of the work of the major as well. It is helpful to think of an undergraduate education as a continuum of increasingly complex intellectual challenges, accompanied by increasingly complex applications with consequences of increasing significance for oneself and for others.

We know a lot about what works. As a scientist turned university administrator turned federal official, I am well aware of the problems that academic leaders face in thinking through, perhaps in reorienting, certainly in building and sustaining an environment for learning that serves their students well. What I also know is that there is a rich and stimulating set of experiences within this nation's undergraduate STEM community that can serve as a solid foundation for broader and more sustained efforts on individual campuses in all parts of this country.

As trustees, presidents, and other senior administrators make hard decisions about limited resources, they should take advantage of the lessons learned in other settings and shape the future of the programs on their campus based on those experiences. In industry, this would be called benchmarking: learning what works in other settings and adapting best practices in ways that respect local circumstances.

In the not-too-distant past, such exchanging of ideas and information was difficult. From the practical perspective, it was not easy to discover colleagues doing similar work because there was no community of practice within the educational community such as that within the research communities. From the intellectual perspective, faculty seemed disposed against adapting, convinced that local exploration and invention of programs and practices that work was the only way, skeptical about ideas that were not home grown.

Yet we are now seeing collaborations, partnerships, and networks that serve the dissemination of best practices, most enabled by the sophisticated technologies now ready at hand. Academic leaders, in administrative and faculty offices alike, must take notice of the emerging National Science Digital Library, supported by the National Science Foundation. This library will be a tool by which to achieve excellence in science education at all levels, pre-K to gray.

Science is everybody's business. This goes for presidents and provosts too. The only way we can be sure that all of our nation's undergraduates will gain mastery of the ideas and ways of thinking of science and mathematics is to involve all leaders at all levels in all of our educational institutions. College and university presidents, trustees, and chief academic officers must embrace the need for a more timely and coherent conception of the undergraduate curriculum for all students. They must encourage meaningful partnerships between their institutions and K-12 communities in their region. They must connect with business and political leaders in shaping an agenda for action.

In doing this, academic leaders must come to understand why constructing undergraduate experiences for all students that incorporate a genuine involvement in science and mathematics is central to their responsibility to preserve the long-term distinctiveness and viability of their particular institution and to make a significant contribution to the good of our society.


Wineburg, S. Historical Thinking. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.