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The National Science Foundation and Education

Rita Rossi Colwell


Achieving science literacy requires:

  • knowledge of new developments and their impacts on daily life
  • an education system that uses curriculum standards
  • equal learning opportunities for all

April 2000

Note: Because some of the information in this article may be outdated, it has been archived.

[Note: Headings were added by the editors of]

The National Science Foundation (NSF) helps science at all levels and in all fields.

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

What was science fiction yesterday is real science today.

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.”

Biocomplexity studies the interaction between biology and physical environments.

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.

Nanotechnology is a new frontier that holds many promises.
  • 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.

Students must be prepared to fit into a workplace that uses the new technologies.
  • 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.

The fastest growing jobs require knowledge and problem-solving skills.

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.

Editor’s note: By July 2001 there were 2 billion web pages.

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.

Access to information is not equivalent to a good education.

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.

Science education

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.

The scope of science teaching is too wide to allow depth of study in America.

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.

Science learning is a continuum of progressive learning.

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.

Everyone must have equal access to science education.
  • 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.

Conclusion: Science standards in education are the first step to quality teaching.
  • 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.

Rita Rossi Colwell, Ph.D., is acting Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), an independent agency of the Federal Government that provides support for research and education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. Dr. Colwell holds a B.S. in Bacteriology and an M.S. in Genetics from Purdue University, and a Ph.D. in Marine Microbiology from the University of Washington.
[Editor’s Note: In February 2004, Dr. Colwell joined Canon US Life Sciences as chairperson and both the University of Maryland, College Park, and the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health as distinguished university professor.]

The National Science Foundation and Education

National Science Foundation

Visit the web site for the National Science Foundation and read some of Rita Colwells’ other speeches. Second link takes you to the calendar of events.

Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)

Find out about the largest international study of student achievement — which countries participated, how student achievement was measured, what contextual information was collected, and how to obtain the results. Also, read the latest about TIMSS in the 1999 report.

National Science Teachers Association

Take a look at what this national education association is doing to improve science education or visit their science store to buy books about science education. Second link takes you to the calendar of events, including recommended television broadcasts.

Scientific literacy for everyone

The Foundation for Scientific Literacy has as its mission to educate, support and promote scientific literacy, defined as “the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision-making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.”

Read a book

Science for All Americans by F. James Rutherford and Andrew Ahlgren explores what constitutes scientific literacy in a modern society — the knowledge, skills and attitudes all students should acquire in scientific study — and what steps this country must take in reforming its system of education in science, mathematics, and technology (Oxford University Press, 1990).

National Association of Biology Teachers

Join this organization to get involved and learn more about biology education issues specifically. Second link takes you to the calendar of events.

Adopt a classroom

This non-profit site provides opportunities for individuals and corporations to donate funds or provide other support to teachers who wish to purchase needed classroom supplies in the U.S. Also, teachers can register their class needs online.

Online science field trips and more provides a database of over 400 science centers worldwide so that kids can “investigate, discover, and try science” themselves. Included are interactive field trips and live webcams of exhibits.

For educators and students: The Science Club

The club offers science projects and activities for children, as well as a science fair ideas exchange. Includes links to many other science resources.

Science Adventures

This site’s goals are “to develop partnerships with parents, teachers, and schools in an effort to raise science literacy” and “to provide fresh, fun, ‘hands-on’ science programs for K-6 grades.”


Understanding Science