June 20, 1996
I'd like to begin by thanking Luther, Daryl Chubin, and the conference planning committee for working above and beyond the call of duty.
You have probably already noticed that the committee has broken some of the rules for conference planning. They may have even violated one of Washington's most sacrosanct traditions.
As the seat of government, this great city is known throughout the world for its oratory and rhetoric. Nevertheless, this conference allocates no time for longwinded speeches. That in itself could be grounds for a Congressional investigation. In fact, this is the only speech you'll hear over these two-plus days, and I intend to see that it's a short speech at that.
Instead, this is your show. You and your efforts are the stars. You'll be on stage, under the bright lights, with the opportunity to showcase, study, and scrutinize each other's efforts.
We have done this because this conference marks an important milestone for NSF's efforts in mathematics and science education. We have moved past the planning stage, beyond beta testing, to the point where we are now satisfied that a sufficient number and variety of prototypes and proof-of-concept tests have been carried out. Now we are looking ahead and examining how to make these reforms robust and enduring. The key words in the title for this gathering -- seeding and sustaining reform -- were selected specifically to stress this very point.
At NSF, we have made systemic reform such a high priority because education is at the core of our overall mission in promoting progress in science and engineering. I often tell people that the NSF is involved in everything from elementary schools to elementary particles -- and it's not clear which is more complicated or more challenging. I know from my own experience that teaching science is just as hard, in some ways harder, than doing science.
I've always enjoyed teaching at all levels, and learned early on that good teaching requires immense amounts of time and energy. For example, in those rare instances when my lecture for a given class was already prepared, perhaps from a previous year, then I could get ready for a 50 minute lecture with 3 hours of preparation. The time and energy required increased exponentially from there. There were instances when I could not put the time required into preparation, but I was often disappointed with the outcome.
Just last month, we received some startling news that may require all of us to devote even more time and energy to the challenges we face as a nation. You may have seen or read about the results of NSF's latest survey on public science literacy. The New York Times article ran under the headline, "Americans Flunk Science." The Los Angeles Times was inspired to draft an editorial entitled, "America's Failing Grade in Science."1
If you've seen the survey results, you'll know that we cannot accuse our friends in the press of over-dramatizing the situation. The results were truly startling. Over 2,000 adults were surveyed, and on average they could correctly answer only 5 out of 10 questions about scientific knowledge. 50% correct usually does not yield a passing grade, and therein lies the interpretation contained in the headlines.
Some of the specific results were even more disturbing.
Some even more disturbing news, and news more relevant to this gathering, was related to a part of the survey that has generated few headlines. The survey for the first time asked people to describe in their own words what it means to study something scientifically. It's not a trivial question, and the surveyors were flexible in their interpretations of the responses -- giving lots of partial credit, so to speak.
Even with this flexibility, however, the results made me sit up and take notice. 4
What does this mean? Consider that nearly everyday, newspapers run articles about new drug therapies, medical procedures, and about the risks associated with everything from pesticides to power lines. Based on this survey, it appears that only a small fraction of American adults understand scientific inquiry well enough to assess whether the findings presented in the media have any basis in science.
In his new book, The Demon Haunted World, the eminent astronomer and author, Carl Sagan, suggests that this lack of understanding portends a disturbing future. He writes:
"Finding the occasional straw of truth awash in a great ocean of confusion and bamboozle requires vigilance, dedication, and courage. But if we don't practice these tough habits of thought...we risk becoming a nation of suckers, a world of suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan who saunters along." 5
In my view, there is only one way to keep us from becoming the gullible nation Sagan describes, and it begins with your work and your leadership. I've read about the gains that your projects have brought to local schools and school districts. I know that test scores have risen in all nine cities funded in the first set of Urban Systemic Initiative awards, that students in Detroit have improved their scores on mathematics assessments by 7 percent, and that Dade County has doubled the numbers of sixth and seventh graders taking pre-algebra courses. These and all of the other success stories tell me our investments are paying off and that real reforms are taking hold.
Yet there is another part of these success stories that I find even more encouraging. All of us at NSF recognize that rising test scores and increased enrollments -- as important as they are -- are only the beginning. Another dimension of our collective efforts holds the key to lasting success.
Some of you may know that my love of science is due as much to my hobbies as to my formal schooling. I grew up in Oklahoma, in the middle of tornado alley, where just watching the weather sparks your curiosity about science and the natural world. I was the classic curious kid, with microscopes, chemistry sets, rock collections -- and all kinds of other scientific toys and curiosities that indulged my intellect and taxed my parent's patience.
Throughout my childhood, my father would take me out to limestone outcroppings along the Texas-Oklahoma border to look for fossils. These were great spots for brachiopods, trilobites and huge cephalopods known as ammonites, which my dad lugged back to the car. I still have some of the fossils I collected on those trips.
I often reflect back on my own experiences when I think about the National Science Foundation's contribution to mathematics and science education. That same spirit of exploration and discovery that I received outside of school is now being brought into our schools, thanks to the hard work and leadership all of you here today are providing.
You probably already know that NSF is committed to inquiry-based learning in mathematics and science at all levels -- from kindergarten through graduate school. The NSF Strategic Plan includes this under the rubric of the integration of research and education. In simple terms, this means learning by doing, getting your hands dirty, experiencing the excitement of the discovery process, and bringing something of the culture and practice of research into the classroom early in every young person's schooling.
As we look to the future, we expect that employers will seek workers who not only are well versed in science and technology concepts, but also are adept at learning through experimentation, inquiry, critical examination, and discovery -- all characteristics of research. We must not fail to give our young people the tools they will need.
This brings me to my conclusion, and to an event that will occur here in just eight hours. At that time, the Olympic Torch will pass within a few blocks of this hotel. The Torch has completed just over half of its 15,000 mile, 42 state relay across America, with a total of 10,000 people taking turns bearing the torch. This odyssey began in Los Angeles on April 27 and will end in Atlanta on July 19th, with the opening ceremony of the Olympics.
It is highly fortuitous that today happens to be the day when the Olympic flame visits our nation's capital. I cannot think of a better symbol for the goals of this conference. In many ways, seeding and sustaining reform requires that each of us carries the flame and serves as a torchbearer for mathematics and science education.
By doing so, we will tell each of our communities, our leaders, and the entire nation that our reforms are working, that we are succeeding against all odds, and that our efforts embody those Olympic qualities of excellence, teamwork, and tenacity. And, just as the Olympic flame is enduring, we want to see our reform efforts become a sustaining element of math and science education in America.
Thank you again for inviting me to join you this morning.
Best of luck as we all work together to carry the flame.