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Congressional Briefing

Two major U.S. science organizations concerned with quality education recently conducted a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

The American Chemical Society (ACS) and Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) sponsored the March 14 session, which featured a panel discussion by leading science educators including:

  • Hunter Rawlings III, president of the American Association of Universities (AAU) and formerly president of Cornell University;  
  • Shirley Jackson , president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and member of President Obama’s Science and Technology Advisory Committee (PCAST);
  • Bassam Shakhashiri, president of the ACS and director of the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy.

Jim GentileJames Gentile, president of RCSA and previously dean of natural sciences at Hope College, moderated the discussion on “Undergraduate STEM Education in America’s Research Universities.” (“STEM” stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.)

The discussion, held in recognition of RCSA’s 100th birthday, focused on improving attraction and retention rates of students to STEM disciplines, and on raising the level of science literacy among all students in America’s research universities.

The topic was selected because both ACS and RCSA currently support early career scientists at universities who focus on the improvement in their undergraduate teaching through the integration of their research into the teaching experience for the students.

The AAU recently announced a five-year project to identify methods to better engage students in STEM learning and to incentivize culture change within departments in research universities. On Feb. 7, 2012, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released the report, Undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education, which makes recommendations in five categories, including the development of metrics for improvement and partnerships among stakeholders.

According to the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. ranked 27th out of 29 developed countries in the percentage of students who earned bachelor’s degrees in science or engineering.  According to the National Science Foundation, university enrollments continue to increase, but STEM degrees as a proportion of total bachelor’s degrees have remained relatively constant – about 15-17 percent.

The RCSA’s Gentile has noted that academic departments place little value on success in attracting and retaining undergraduate students in science; the reward system within the universities generally ignores success with undergraduates, and the rankings of departments nationally place little value on success with undergraduates. 

Congressional Briefing: Consensus on the ‘Quiet Crisis’

 “We all know that innovation is evermore the key to a strong economy,” said Madeleine Jacobs, ACS executive director, while introducing the briefing panel to a crowd of 200 in the historic Kennedy Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building. She added, “we must bolster our workforce by enhancing our K-12-and-beyond STEM education programs.”

James M. Gentile, RCSA president and CEO, set the tone by noting that science “is not just a collection of facts, nor is it something that happens in a laboratory. It happens in the mind. It requires flights of imagination, fancy, inspiration and innovation. And that’s how we should be teaching students.”

Citing a half century of studies on improving STEM education and updating its priorities, including the most recent from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), Gentile said they all emphasize that America requires a robust system of science and technology education. But, he added, the nation really needs “catalytic change” in how STEM education occurs, because U.S. national security and prosperity in the coming decades require more than accomplished scientists and science workers. It also requires STEM savvy lawyers, business people, congressmen and senators, as well, he said.

Dramatic Changes Needed

Gentile urged STEM educators to focus more on where students are beginning their quests for knowledge in order to be more effective in helping them learn. He also stressed the need for dramatic changes in pedagogical attitude and approach when it comes to STEM education in post-secondary institutions. And he said STEM curricula in colleges and universities must become more “problem-centered” and thus increasingly transcend traditional disciplines.

“We have to use scientific teaching as our basis, and we have to use active learning as our preference,” Gentile said, urging the educators in the crowd to take advantage of new modes of communication available today.

Bassam ShakhashiriBassam Shakhashiri, president of ACS, made a strong plea for developing good science teachers. He is known for tirelessly promoting the idea that science is fun, or should be, for K-12 students. Shakhashiri often emphasizes this message by performing experiments before his audiences. There were no experiments for the briefing audience, however. Instead, Shakhashiri pointed out that only 47 percent of high school physics and chemistry classes are taught by teachers with science degrees, according to National Science Foundation (NSF) indicators.

Science literacy requires hands-on training, he said, but noted 54 percent of the nation’s 4th graders and 47 percent of 8th graders never or hardly ever write up results of experiments or design science experiments.

A National Security Issue

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Co., a member of the Senate’s STEM Caucus, said STEM education is one of the best investments the nation can make because it stimulates economic growth. But currently, he warned, “China, India and other countries are literally eating our lunch when it comes to preparing for the economies of the 21st century. We’ve got to start reversing that trend today.”

Udall, who serves on the Senate Intelligence and Armed Services committees, noted that the quality and effectiveness of America’s STEM programs is also clearly a national security issue.

Hunter Rawlings IIIHunter Rawlings III, president of the Association of American Universities, which represents 61 leading research universities in the U.S. and Canada, confessed that “too many of our students drop out of science majors before they’re through. In fact, the attrition rate is astonishingly high – 50 to 60 percent….Now that is a national problem, not just a university problem. This is a national problem of the first order.”

Old-fashioned Teaching

Rawlings said that while poor high-school preparation may be partly to blame, the research universities are part of the problem as well. “In fact, we’re a fairly big part of the problem.” Even though top universities offer famous scientists teaching great courses, he said, many of those courses are taught in old-fashioned lectures to passive audiences.

“We know from studies in the past 15 or 20 years that clearly and certainly that method of teaching does not work for freshmen and sophomores in college,” Rawlings said, adding the reason science is still taught this way is because professors are simply repeating a familiar process.

“Science and math and engineering are tough subjects. It’s not good enough to sit in a lecture with 300 people in the hall listening to the professor, even an excellent professor who is superb at lecturing, because those students are not feeling that the course is theirs,” Rawlings said. “It’s the professor’s course, not their course. All studies show that it doesn’t work very well at all. It turns the students off to science.”

He said the solution s simple: “You have to engage the students.” That means solving problems, working in groups and experiencing constant feedback, he added, noting that students could watch lectures the night before class on the Internet. “We need constant application of results, testing theories, developing ideas and defending ideas. All of these things make students active.”

Rawlings said the AAU is beginning a major, five-year effort to influence the way its member institutions teach STEM. He noted there are already pockets of teaching innovation at various universities.

The Quiet Crisis

Shirley JacksonShirley Ann Jackson, president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, addressed what she calls the “quiet crisis,” which she defines as “the gap in STEM capabilities and human capital that our nation faces as a generation of scientists and engineers retires. A generation inspired and supported by the national commitment that followed the Soviet launch of the Sputnik.”

She warned that while roughly half of America’s prosperity in the decades following WWII was based on scientific discovery and technological invention, we are increasingly neglecting the maintenance of our scientific and engineering talent and infrastructure.

Citing the recent book The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation, by John Gertner, Jackson described the successful approach to innovation employed by the legendary corporate research hub. Bell Labs scientists and engineers were expected to work at the edges of their disciplines, but to create useful things at the same time.

Jackson, former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission as well as a former researcher at Bell Labs, said, “The physical layout of the Labs encouraged serendipitous interactions among people.” When she worked there, she recalled, the walls could be shifted around. “And one did not get from one’s office or lab to the cafeteria without running into someone.”

Just as importantly, scientists and engineers were given “freedom in the search,” and young scientists were put to work with established researchers. The idea, she said, “was to challenge all to create new ideas and new technology for American wealth and well-being.”

Gertner’s most profound insight, Jackson said, quoting the author, is that, the Bell labs story teaches us that “we should not mistake small technological steps for huge technological leaps.” She observed this was also the guiding principle of the Apollo Program and the Manhattan Project. Ultimately, Jackson explained, it means that “there is no innovation without innovators.” And thus, Jackson said, it is essential to attract, nurture and retain talent, and to develop space and opportunities for talented people to innovate and create.

Start Early to Improve STEM

“So today we must support fundamental research, and we must start early to develop our young people…and we must do so in creative and sustained ways,” Jackson said. “To accomplish this, academia, government, industry and the public must work together to improve math and science education from the very beginnings of our children’s lives.”

Jackson, a member of PCAST, cited the Council’s latest report to the President, calling for the production of one million more STEM college graduates. “Our economic forecasts call for the need to produce that many additional graduates over the next two decades,” she said, adding that key recommendations of the PCAST report are focused on improving STEM education in the first two years of college, where much of the shortfall develops.

She noted the PCAST report calls for widespread adoption of empirically validated teaching practices. “That is, actively engaging students to promote better learning outcomes.” She added the report also calls for replacing standard laboratory courses with curricula stressing “discoveries and researchables,” as well as launching a “national experiment” in post-secondary mathematics education. It also advocates encouraging partnerships among stakeholders to expand pathways to STEM careers, Jackson said.

“Our nation’s continuing scientific and technological success depends on engaging and attracting more women, minorities and others” currently underrepresented in America’s scientific workforce, she said.

“The rising generation has the imagination, the commitment and the intelligence to lead in science and engineering and math and technology,” Jackson said, “if we provide them with the preparation and education they need and deserve.”

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