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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: House Science Committee Subcommittee on Basic Research Hearing on the National Science Foundation FY 2001 Budget Authorization February 29, 2000

February 29, 2000

On February 29th, the Subcommittee on Basic Research of the House Science Committee held the second in a series of hearings on the National Science Foundation FY2001 budget authorization request. The hearing focused on the Education and Human Resources Directorate of NSF. Witnesses were Dr. Judith Sunley, acting assistant director for Education and Human Resources; Dr. James E.K. Hildreth, professor of pharmacology and molecular sciences and assistant dean for graduate student affairs at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine; and Dr. Bennett Bertenthal, professor of psychology, University of Chicago.

In his opening remarks, Rep. Smith noted that NSF must serve the nation in two ways: supporting cutting edge science and developing human and intellectual capital. We are too reliant on foreign-born students, he said, and must pay particular attention to research into how people learn.

The discussion throughout was amicable and witness testimony was well received. The witnesses all described the NSF as uniquely positioned to best influence the improvement of mathematics and science education in the US. Dr. Sunley stressed the NSF-wide emphasis on education and linked changes in the FY2001 budget request with the 21st Century Workforce initiative. She briefly described budget aspects of each EHR program, including expansion of the GK-12 program, ATE and information security scholarship programs, distinguished scholars teaching, and the tribal college initiative. These budget requests, she concluded, are all about people.

Dr. Bertenthal focused his remarks on increased funding for NSF, increased research into how people learn, and the fact that NSF is uniquely postured to improve math and science education. He asked the committee to consider how much society has changed in a century, using the modern emergency room as an example, and asked if education has kept up. He suggested that a reason for the lack of change is that we haven't brought science to the classroom. There are too many arguments about the best way to study learning and not enough cooperation between scientific discipline, he said, linking the academic infighting to competition for scarce research funding. One answer is increased funding for fundamental research in education, he said. It's an enormous challenge, he admitted, but NSF is structured to bring the disciplines together in pursuit of basic knowledge.

Dr. Hildreth began by stating that he credits his NSF Presidential Young Scholars Award for his career. He talked about the importance of including all segments of society in the improvement of math and science education, of preparing minority students. He spoke specifically about Johns Hopkins' special partnerships with inner city schools, especially the GK-12 teaching fellows program at Dunbar High School. He described the graduate students as a wonderful content resource, bringing their palpable excitement about math and science into the classrooms.

Rep. Smith asked Dr. Sunley why the NSF request called for a reduction in the graduate research fellows program. Dr. Sunley responded that with limited resources, the decision was to fund increases in the GK-12 program. Rep. Smith pointed out that this was a 170% increase and questioned how its effects were being measured and whether there are standards by which the teachers and graduate students were chosen. Dr. Sunley replied that these are three-year awards, and haven't been running long enough to have a thorough evaluation yet, and that NSF does review the procedures by which the institutions choose fellows. Dr. Hildreth said that Johns Hopkins was seeing good results in terms of better scores on standardized tests and on college entrance, and was going to do a formal, long-term survey of these numbers, including how many of the students actually go into math and science. He acknowledged that putting these very bright students into a classroom with all their knowledge and enthusiasm could be threatening to teachers who felt behind the curve on their knowledge. But the teachers are there as teachers, to teach the graduate students about teaching he said, and he had seen no problem in his classrooms around this issue because the relationships were well defined. And the teachers are excited, he said, to have these grad students as resources.

Rep. Woolsey asked what NSF is doing to encourage women and girls into science, pointing out that they represent at least half the population. Dr. Sunley responded that NSF is very concerned with developing classroom materials and procedures that work well to encourage all students in math and science and mentioned the program in gender equity. Dr. Bertenthal said that there is tremendous concern, not only in the agencies involved in education, but also among parents of girls. The way we've been teaching sciences up till now is not the best for all children, who we turning off by making it too hard for them to relate to science. We need research directed at how children learn science, he said. Dr. Hildreth said it is the same for minorities, and the answer revolves around role models. He pointed again to those graduate students. Rep. Woolsey agreed that mentors and role models are a big part of the answer.

Rep. Ehlers asked about the methods of best improving math and science in this country and what Congress can do. We have a lot of evidence, he said, that the research that's going on isn't very good. Dr. Bertenthal responded that criticisms of quality today are too often sniping by one discipline at another brought about by competition for scarce research resources. Research in education is fragmented and piecemeal, he said, riding a funding roller coaster, and if research had been done this way in biotechnology, we would have had no progress. A strong commitment to basic research and to interdisciplinary research would help change things. It's a problem to believe that we can go out and get some science and then simply apply it to the classroom, he said. Rep. Ehlers said he thought that was right. Too often we tackle complex problems with simple solutions. It may be very difficult to measure research quality, but Congress has a mandate to do it, he added.

Rep. Smith asked Dr. Hildreth about areas of needed improvement in math and science education. Dr. Hildreth replied that there is a startling difference between foreign and domestic students in their ability to manipulate data and solve complex problems and other skills learned early in childhood. The challenge is that the teachers we're expecting to solve these differences are struggling because they are victims of the same background. He mentioned again the GK-12 program and the improved skills in those classrooms.

Rep. Woolsey asked how we could overcome the problem of rewarding people who do science so much better than those who teach it. Dr. Sunley acknowledged the problem and said perhaps the GK-12 program can help stimulate young people into teaching, but right now we are turning too many young people off to science. Dr. Hildreth said the public has to be more excited about science and scientists have to develop more respect for teaching.

Rep. Ehlers asked what evaluation is being done in the systemic reform program and whether NSF standards were applied in these evaluations. Dr. Sunley responded that there have been outside evaluations at the state level of the programs and that NCTM, AAAS, and NRC standards are used in the evaluations. Basically, the statewide systems have seen evaluations based on consistent standards, and there has been measured improvement, but the urban and rural program results are less clear, she said.

Rep. Larsen asked how the NSF could ensure that the universities it funds are turning out teachers able to deal with the demands of the new century. Dr. Sunley talked about efforts to improve future teachers, including linking colleges of science and education in the new centers for learning and teaching.

Rep. Morella asked about the role that community colleges could play in the ATE program. Dr. Sunley talked about the program's connection to the most local demands for trained workers. Community colleges are most closely tied to what's going on in their communities. Forty to fifty percent of new teachers begin in community colleges - so NSF is working to create programs that suit the needs of individual communities.