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Science education should be viewed as a seamless continuum from kindergarten through graduate school. Photo: Microsoft Image.
We’re not content with piecemeal approaches at NSF. We’re thinking big — especially when it comes to our role in learning and teaching. Most people don’t know that NSF is the only federal agency with a specific mandate to support science, mathematics, and engineering education at all levels, and in all fields.
The three topics I’ll discuss will take us from the frontiers of science and engineering to our changing workplace and finally to your classrooms.
- I’ll highlight a few trends that we see at the furthest frontiers of research.
- Then, I’ll review how these same trends are affecting how we work and live.
- Finally, I’ll focus on how NSF is responding to these trends and working to improve learning and teaching at all levels.
The furthest frontiers
NSF is supporting scientific research in areas such as biocomplexity, nanoscale science and engineering, quantum computing, genomics, to name but a few. Just a decade ago, these areas seemed like science fiction. Now they are close to reality. This is an exciting time to be involved in all aspects of science and engineering research and education. The pace of new discoveries has accelerated. We wheel around a corner, and find ourselves in a new neighborhood. We’re knocking down fences and moving into frontiers where disciplines coalesce and forge new knowledge. As Scottish-born American naturalist John Muir said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
We have framed a new and encompassing approach to studying our world. My term for it is biocomplexity, and it’s one of our key budget emphases at NSF. It’s an interdisciplinary view of the complex interactions in biological systems — and between these systems and their physical environments. We are on the brink of developing the tools to observe complexity at multiple scales — with genomics, with global ecological observatories, and vantage points at scales in between. We’re also ready to carry out meaningful analyses of these observations. We know that ecosystems do not respond linearly to environmental change. Tracing the complexity of the Earth’s environment is profoundly important to the future of life on our planet. The same tools that let us study biocomplexity also take us to another dimension — to the Lilliputian level of the nanoscale.
At the frontier of nanotechnology, we find the word “atom” literally written out in Japanese with atoms. Each character is just a few nanometers across. NSF is now leading a multi-agency initiative on nanoscale science and engineering.
- One nanometer — one billionth of a meter — is a magical point on the dimensional scale.
- Nanostructures are at the confluence of the smallest of human-made devices and the large molecules of living systems.
- Red blood cells, for instance, have diameters spanning thousands of nanometers.
- Micro-electrical mechanical systems now approach this same scale.
- We are at the point of connecting machines to individual cells.
The confluence of microelectronics and neural research holds great promise for developing prosthetic devices for artificial limbs. We should take a moment to take stock of this set of discoveries and advances. There’s a story behind the story.
- These highlights all span an array of disciplines.
- They bring out the complexity in systems.
- And, they are enabled by leading-edge technologies and methodologies.
These same trends — technology, complexity, and multidisciplinarity — also speak to what our students will face when they enter the workforce. That brings me to part two of my talk.
Science and our lives
Our fastest-growing job categories are all in professions with significant educational requirements: areas like medical technologies, financial systems, and multimedia. We’ve moved into an economy based on knowledge and ideas. Discovery and innovation have been a driving force behind our economic gains. They are the key to our continuing economic leadership in the future.
Perhaps the most powerful indicator of the scope of change can be seen in the growth of the Internet. Here’s where we stand today:
- We’ve got over 200 million users on the net.
- They link to 75 million hosts.
- And, nearly 250 countries are hooked up.
In fact, it’s expected that, in very short order, there will be as many devices hooked up to the Internet as there are phone lines in the world. The Internet will be as ubiquitous as the phone network.
I’m one of those who believes it won’t be long before we’ll be plugging into the information grid the way we plug into the electricity grid today. This, of course, is where everything comes back to you. Having access to information doesn’t automatically make us wiser — just as having a library card doesn’t automatically make us well-read. It’s no secret that, as teachers and as leaders, you are the key to making this work for our society.
We all know about TIMSS, the Third International Math and Science Study. It created a stir when it was released in stages from 1996 through 1998. A howl went up about our kids not having the knowledge of their peers in other countries. Some of that is true, we all know it. But I think the media and the pundits have overlooked the more important message from the study; it’s a message about materials. This is where the rubber meets part of the road in education. We all need materials that probe deeply into subject matter.
NSF’s 1998 Science and Engineering Indicators report shows that, for example, in eighth grade, German and Japanese students are receiving instruction in 8 to 9 different science topics. U.S. eighth graders receive instruction, on average, in about 67 science topics. This is the “mile-wide, inch-deep” problem in U.S. science curricula. We’re trying to help. There are nearly 40 NSF-supported projects in standards-based science and math materials that we classify as comprehensive.
Our traditional education “stream”, and by that I mean K-12, undergraduate, and graduate levels, has been treated as a disconnected series of stages in one’s life. It is not. Those levels are a continuum, and the chasms between various levels are all without any rational foundation. These levels must be connected. The Centers for Learning and Teaching that I mentioned earlier will be one way of bridging gaps between education levels. A seamless continuum from kindergarten through graduate school requires that people from each level collaborate and act as partners in a common venture. That’s where it starts.
The clarion call
In closing, I would like to reinforce the clarion call for science education in this country. It is sounding louder than ever.
Our nation needs to produce citizens who can be successful in science and technology and who participate in government and civic affairs.
To enjoy that success, we must ensure that every individual, at any grade level, has access to high-quality, standards-based science instruction.
We must have a national understanding about what all students need to know and what they should be capable of doing.
- We already have science standards out there, available for use by any school district that so chooses. Districts are free to implement those standards with a view to local sensibilities. But NSF firmly believes the performance bar for all students must be positioned equally across the country.
The foreign countries that out-performed us on the TIMSS assessment are different from the U.S. in only one way: They have achieved national consensus on what their students need to know. That’s the essential first step. With high standards on which to base our strategies for learning, and a deep understanding of the fundamental role of the teacher, we can begin to formulate our own consensus.
© 2000, National Science Foundation (NSF). Excerpts from the keynote address by Rita Rossi Colwell at the National Science Teachers Association’s national convention. Reprinted with permission. See reprint policy.