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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: House Basic Research Subcommittee Hearing / The National Science Foundation's Math, Science and Engineering Education Programs

March 13, 1997

At the hearing of the Basic Research Subcommittee of the House Science Committee on March 13, 1997, outside witnesses testified in support of the National Science Foundation's Math, Science and Engineering Education programs. Outside witnesses included Mr. Richard Mills, Commissioner of Education for New York State; Dr. Edward Friedman, Director of the Center for Improvement of Engineering and Science Education at the Stevens, Institute of Technology, NJ; Dr. Nathan S. Lewis, Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, California Institute of Technology; and Dr. Alfredo de los Santos, Jr., Vice Chancellor for Student and Educational Development, Maricopa County Colleges, AZ. Subcommittee Chairman, Rep. Steve Schiff (R-NM), newly named Ranking Member, James Barcia (D-MI), and other members of the subcommittee praised the quality of the National Science Foundation (NSF)'s educational programs and urged their continuation.

In their opening remarks, all witnesses echoed this praise. Mr. Mills, commended the NSF's ability to bring vision to the states through statewide systemic reform and through insistence that reforms demonstrate and document results. He pointed out that NSF's grant to New York State, supplemented by funds leveraged from the private sector, has encouraged New York to study and learn from other states. He emphasized that need to focus not just on setting goals and evaluating results, but on building capacity to sustain the reforms. Dr. Friedman commended NSF's push to get technology into the classroom, but argued that this push has created a growing need to give teachers and students the tools to effectively use this technology. He suggested training centers, which could be partially supported by industry, as a means to provide interdisciplinary guidance for teachers on how to use technology. As the third witness, Dr. Lewis praised the Division of Undergraduate Education's institute-wide curriculum reforms and reinforced the importance of NSF's ability to leverage private sector contribution, as well as stimulate the participation of top scientists in all levels of education. Finally, Dr. de los Santos highlighted the importance of the Advanced Technology Education program, commending in particular its focus on industry participation.

Discussion between the witnesses and members focused on how to better prepare teachers to teach math and science and how to raised the level of math and science education for all students, rather than just an elite few. In reply to the suggestion from Rep. Schiff that magnet schools or training centers should be more widely utilized, the panel unanimously agreed that good math and science education is important for all students, not just a few. The panel agreed further that, while magnet schools may not reach a sufficient number of students, technology can enable the centers to reach a broad population. Rep. Boehlert lamented about the NSF's decrease of 1.73 million (-0.5%) in investments in PreK-12 education. Rep Barcia the panel to name the barriers to reform in higher education, and tell the Committee how NSF could better meet these challenges. Rep Ehlers added his concern that students graduating from the nation's top universities remain ignorant about science. He quoted a study in which 95 percent of Harvard and UCLA graduates thought the seasons occur as the sun moves closer and farther from the earth. He asked the panel why, if we have been studying how to improve math and science education for decades, we still produce students who do not understand basic concepts such as what causes seasonal variation. In response to these concerns, the panel reaffirmed the National Science Foundation's effectiveness, particularly in its systemic reforms. Dr. Lewis called for all teachers to "embrace the students as customers" and for the Foundation to continue using a wide variety of strategies for K-12, undergraduate and graduate education. The panel recommended continued focus on systemic reform and teaching students how, rather than just what, to learn. Finally, Rep. Rivers asked how the U.S. is doing compared to other countries. Dr. Friedman pointed out, as an example, that Bulgaria for example has much higher math and science standards for teachers than does the U.S.