A Revolution in University Culture
Recognizing that not all teachers can go to the field, NSF is looking for more ways to bring the field to them. One approach is NSF's Graduate Teaching Fellows in K-12 Education program. Begun in 1999, the program aims to place graduate and advanced undergraduate science, mathematics, and engineering students into K-12 classrooms as resources for teachers and students.
A critical component of the fellowship is pedagogical training for the upper-level science students, so they will know how to transform their cutting-edge knowledge into something that younger students can understand and appreciate. Still, "the intention is not to make teachers out of scientists, although some may decide that's what they want to do," says NSF's Dorothy Stout, who headed up development of the program. Rather, NSF hopes that the teaching fellows will go on to become scientists who, in turn, will act as bridges between the research and education communities by serving as resources for their local school districts.
"We want them to be well-rounded individuals," says Stout, "who can enhance K-12 classrooms with their specialized backgrounds."
Or as NSF Director Rita Colwell says, "We cannot expect the task of science and math education to be the responsibility solely of K-12 teachers while scientists, engineers, and graduate students remain busy in their universities and laboratories."
A natural extension of NSF's commitment to bringing the research and education communities together is a greater emphasis on the conduct of research into education itself. Says Colwell, "We've spent a lot of time focused on teaching and yet we don't really know how people learnhow effectively a person's learning can be enhanced, and the differences in how people learn."
Education research emerged as a field in the 1950s and 1960s. Although it once struggled to gain the level of funding and respect afforded to other areas of scientific inquiry, the field is coming into its own as growing numbers of scientists and educators advocate research to better understand how people learn and think.
Finding out more about how children learn, and figuring out how to implement what is known about the acquisition of knowledge, are huge challenges. Recognizing the importance of this work, the U.S. government announced in April 1999 a unique collaboration among NSF, the National Institutes of Health, and the Department of Education. The goals of the new Interagency Education Research Initiative (IERI) are to meld different kinds of research in how children learn mathematics, science, and reading; to understand the implications of research for the education community, speeding the implementation of research-based instruction; and to expand the appropriate uses of technology in schools.
For example, one project funded by IERI will expand the testing of an automated reading tutor for at-risk children. Children read aloud while a computer program "listens" and verbally corrects any mistakes. The program is not fooled by accents and is able to use other cues (thanks to a camera mounted on the computer) to see if the child is paying attention to the task. Preliminary studies have shown that seriously underperforming first- and second-graders who use the automated tutor for three to six months jump almost to their grade level in reading skill. Researchers will also compare the automated tutor to human tutors. It's expected that students will respond best to human tutors, but by how much? With schools struggling to provide at-risk students with the extra help they need, such technology could be an affordable and effective boon.