NSF & Congress
Dr. Rita Colwell
National Science Foundation
Before the House Committee on Science
April 28, 1999
Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Brown, members of the
Committee, I appreciate the opportunity to appear
today to discuss the role of the federal government
in science, mathematics, engineering and technology
(SMET) education together with the other federal science
and education agencies.
It is no secret that improving K-12 education in this
country is an imperative. When I arrived at NSF, Mr.
Chairman, I was determined to make education one of
the top priorities for the National Science Foundation.
It is one of the three priorities in the FY 2000 budget
request along with our Information Technology and
Mr. Chairman, under your leadership the Science Committee
has also made education a priority. The Committee
has endorsed the National Science Policy report --
Unlocking the Future: Toward a New Science Policy
- produced under your leadership as well as former
Speaker Gingrich, and Congressman Vern Ehlers. This
important report explicitly stated that science and
math education at all levels should be rooted in the
natural desires of young people to explore and discover.
This inquiry-based, hands-on approach to learning
- one that integrates education with the excitement
of research - is one of the hallmarks of NSF's education
drive toward exploration and discovery that is so
basic to the human spirit is being celebrated right
now through National Science and Technology Week.
This is our poster announcing the kick-off of our
new initiative, which we call "find out why." Our
challenge is to engage people of all ages in discovering
the science and technology found everywhere in their
The striking object on this poster is not an insect
or a flower. It's a ferrofluid -- part liquid and
part magnet. It's used in such things as rotary seals
in disk drives for computers.
Today the technologies emerging from basic science
and engineering have given us so many ways to "find
out why" that we can hardly enumerate them. Our economy
is in the midst of a profound transformation, in which
people's livelihoods are depending less on what they
are producing with their hands, and more on what they
are producing with their brains. Federal Reserve Chairman
Alan Greenspan has described this as the advent of
a "conceptual-based economy." The Bureau of Labor
Statistics projects that the fastest growing job categories
will be in professions with significant educational
The Unlocking the Future report spelled this
out clearly when it stated:
[O]ur system of education, from kindergarten to
research universities, must be strengthened. Our
effectiveness in realizing the vision we have
identified will be largely determined by the intellectual
capital of the Nation. Education is critical to
developing this resource. Not only must we ensure
that we continue to produce world-class scientists
and engineers, we must also provide every citizen
with an adequate grounding in science and math
if we are to give them an opportunity to succeed
in the technology-based world of tomorrow-a lifelong
Mr. Chairman, I wholeheartedly agree with this proposition.
But we know we have got a long way to go to get there.
Last year we got a wake up call from the set of studies
known as TIMSS -- the Third International Mathematics
and Science Study.
The results raised important issues about the quality
of U.S. science and mathematics education. While U.S.
fourth graders were close to the goal of being "first
in the world," U.S. eighth graders slipped to levels
at or below the international average and 12th graders
were near the bottom.
We also learned that we need to address both what we
teach and how we teach. Our curricula sacrifice depth
for the sake of breadth. As the National Science Board
concluded in its recent report: "U.S. students are
not taught what they need to know."
U.S. textbooks contain many more topics than those
in other countries. For example, the science textbooks
we give to our eighth graders cover some 67 topics.
In Germany, they cover 9 topics. As the saying goes,
we are learning less and less about more and more.
Not only do all of our children deserve a rigorous
education in science and mathematics ... our future
demands it. We could start to see the best jobs, and
technological and economic leadership, begin moving
beyond our borders. Fortunately, there is a positive
side of this story as well, which is what I want to
focus on today.
NSF's Unique Role in Education:
Fostering the Natural Connections Between Learning
As you know, Mr. Chairman, the amount spent by the
federal government on education is comparatively small
next to the amounts spent by state and local governments.
Educating our children is -- quite rightly -- the
responsibility of parents and local school systems.
One way the federal government can help foster a world-class
system of education is by linking K-12 education with
our already world-class science and engineering enterprise.
NSF has supported science, math and engineering education
at all levels since it was founded in 1950. Education
and learning is central to everything we do at NSF.
Many people think of NSF as being a research agency,
but in fact, overall education and training programs
comprise nearly 20 percent of our budget and involve
all seven of our directorates. I would also note that
over half of our education investment is in K-12 math
and science education.
NSF's educational effort is unique for a number of
- NSF is focused solely on improving Science, Math,
Engineering, and Technology Education;
- NSF is able to link the science and engineering
research enterprise with education. We support
new ideas, new concepts and combine the discovery
of research with science and math education;
- NSF programs cover all disciplines of sciences
- NSF spans all educational levels -- we are able
to support innovative links between K-12 schools
and undergraduate programs;
- All NSF awards are made as the result of merit-based,
- NSF has shown leadership in developing new concepts
and programs that significantly improve science
and math education.
NSF science and math education programs are -- like
all NSF programs -- "experiments". They are designed
to foster the natural connections between learning
and discovery. NSF-funded science and math education
projects come from proposals submitted by individual
investigators. These can be university faculty, but
they also include local teachers, administrators,
school districts officials, and state officials. What
they all have in common is that their proposals are
subject to merit based, peer review.
At NSF we fund -- with the limited resources available
-- the best ideas with the greatest potential for
a long-lasting, broader impact on our system of education.
We need to find out what works and what doesn't, so
that local communities can build programs to better
educate their children in science and math. Successful
new approaches and concepts for science and math education
originally supported by NSF can have wider impact
as these new ideas become the basis for future educational
programs that reach across entire systems and regions.
How Does NSF Support Education?
Promoting Partnerships -- Promoting Quality
One of the central concepts for all NSF-supported education
activities is the concept of partnerships.
Only 6 cents of every education dollar spent in the
U.S. comes from Federal sources. NSF contributes a
small fraction of those pennies. If we are to make
an impact, we must spend them wisely and we must make
them go a long way. Leveraging these precious resources
To be successful, an education project must have the
financial support and active participation of all
players in the local education system -- parents,
teachers, administrators, business leaders, civic
groups and local governments. This is doubly true
for large education reform projects like NSF's systemic
activities that seek to enable changes not just in
one classroom or in one school, but across a large
institution or jurisdiction such as a entire district,
city, or state.
As a partner in local school reform, NSF cannot impose
its will, or magically produce increased learning
from a distance. Rather, positive change can only
occur from a complicated array of school-based conditions
and community forces operating in states and districts.
One size or model will not fit all. NSF can help to
narrow the choices, focus on the most pressing needs,
and require our grantees to articulate their vision
and report to us on their strategies for pursuing
that vision and measures for determining it is achieved.
Another important concept is quality. The recipients
of our support are grateful for the resources we provide
but unfortunately, the amount of NSF resources available
often falls well short of the educational needs in
local communities. Beyond the dollars and cents there
is something else that draws institutions to seek
NSF awards. That extra value-added arises from the
integrity of the peer review and post-award process,
the stamp of NSF's quality control, and a support
network of other participating institutions that are
drawn to NSF supported projects.
What is Needed?
Mr. Chairman, NSF is committed to improving the science
and math achievement of all children in the United
States, enabling all who have interest and talent
to pursue scientific and technical careers at any
level, and supporting scientific literacy of all citizens.
To achieve this goal several things are needed. These
- A cadre of skilled teachers who are confident
in their discipline and who understand how students
- High quality instructional materials for teachers
to use as they engage students with important
- Classrooms with appropriate technology and teachers
who understand its use;
- Involvement of all players in the education system,
including governments at every level, teachers,
parents, administrators, industry, and the larger
scientific community; and
- Local, state, and federal policies that support
the alignment of instruction, assessment, and
NSF Education Strategies
In recent years, NSF has been striving to reach these
goals by supporting a number of initiatives that are
beginning to have a direct impact on these critical
- K-12 systemic activities
- Professional development of teachers
- Improvement of instructional materials
- Research on learning & education
- Digital libraries
- Graduate students in K-12 education
As I mentioned earlier, all NSF programs -- whether
education or research -- are really experiments. Consistent
with our mission, NSF's educational programs all seek
to integrate the best research across the fields of
science and engineering with the education of the
next generation. The attached slide gives you a good
snapshot of the mixture of NSF K-12 programs.
Some -- like our new interagency research initiative
in learning and education -- are more research-focused.
Others are focused clearly on the classroom -- such
as our efforts to develop instructional materials
-- that seek to improve the quality of classroom materials
by injecting them with in-depth science and engineering
Still others -- such as our systemic reform efforts
-- combine research and education by seeking to reform
the science and math education in a locality in ways
or on scales that have never been attempted. Through
rigorous assessment, these systemic efforts can help
demonstrate what strategies work and what do not.
Let me say a few words about each of these programs.
K-12 Systemic Activities
At the start of the decade, NSF initiated major programs
for the systemic reform of science, mathematics, engineering,
and technology education. Our systemic reform programs
are based on the principle that rigorous, high-quality
math and science courses should be available to all
students. Systemic projects treat whole systems and
build much-needed educational capacity at state, urban,
rural, school district, and school levels. These projects
are unique in their involvement of broad partnerships
and development of comprehensive goals, solutions,
These programs have resulted in education improvements
on a large scale. In localities where NSF-supported
systemic initiatives have taken place, science and
math assessment scores have improved, enrollments
in challenging classes have increased, and disparities
in attainment have been reduced.
- Student performance increased across all districts
participating in the Urban Systemic Initiatives
(USIs). Over 75% of the USIs showed a direct correlation
between student achievement and the length of
time cohorts of schools participated in the USI
program. Nearly all sites reported increased student
enrollment and completion rate in higher level
- In Chicago, 61 of 62 high schools increased student
performance in mathematics, and system-wide mathematics
scores reached a seven-year high; and
- In Dallas, mathematics gains exceeded expectations
in seven of eight grades and the percent of high
school seniors taking and completing 4 years of
mathematics rose 21%. For grades 3-8, the USI
Phase I schools outperformed the rest of the district
on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS)
mathematics test at five of the six grade levels.
In the area of instructional materials development,
the Foundation is continuing its long tradition of
supporting high quality programs at all grade levels.
These activities are designed to engage students in
active learning, emphasizing problem solving, critical
thinking, and attention to students' preconceived
These materials allow students time to learn powerful
ideas and help them to make connections among science,
mathematics, technology and other disciplines. For
mathematics, this means materials that include both
the familiar "basic skills" of arithmetic and the
more advanced "basic skills" of probability, statistics
and data analysis. This develops the student' ability
to solve non-routine problems, and their ability to
communicate mathematical reasoning to others.
Similarly, the science materials stress experimentation
and the understanding of important concepts and themes.
The funding of technology education or "pre-engineering"
materials has resulted in the development of specialized
units at the elementary school level, new comprehensive
courses at the middle school level, and new technology
courses at the high school level.
In January, the American Association for the Advancement
of Science released the results of a study of middle
school mathematics texts. Only four of the 12 texts
examined received high ratings, while the others were
rated as unsatisfactory. All four receiving high ratings
were developed with NSF support.
Although these materials are only now becoming widely
available from their commercial publishers, data exist
to suggest that their use contributes to significantly
improved student achievement. For example, Connected
Mathematics, the materials receiving the highest ratings
on the AAAS study, have been adopted by the schools
in Traverse City, MI and scores on the Michigan Education
Assessment Program tests have risen dramatically.
Additionally, half the students completing eighth
grade using these materials are able to move directly
into more advanced mathematics courses traditionally
taken by 10th and 11th graders.
A content-rich curricula is only one part of the story.
First class materials are useless without a well-trained
first class teacher corps, skilled in the use of the
The Traverse City experience demonstrates this very
vividly. The adoption of the new materials in Traverse
City was accompanied by an intensive school-wide professional
development program designed to prepare the teachers
to use the new materials. Also, similarly intensive
professional development efforts have been present
at the other sites where the materials developed with
NSF support have been used and where impressive gains
have been observed in student achievement.
NSF currently is involved in numerous projects that
engage entire jurisdictions - from states and large
urban areas to local schools and districts - in professional
development efforts that provide teachers and administrators
with both content knowledge and teaching expertise.
Just as we strive to put content in new SMET instructional
materials, we must do the same for the training of
teachers -- either new or in the existing teacher
corps. To achieve this goal, we must now create a
generation of centers for teacher training -- collaborations
among universities, industry, and state and local
governments -- to help bring K-12 teachers closer
to world-class experts, research and knowledge.
The development of the National Science, Mathematics,
Engineering, and Technology Education Digital Library
will be accelerated in FY 2000. This national resource
will increase the quality, quantity, and comprehensiveness
of internet-based K-16 educational resources.
This virtual facility will link students, teachers,
and faculty, and provide broad access to standards-based
educational materials and learning tools for schools
and academic institutions nationwide.
This initiative cuts across an array of NSF activities
- from cutting-edge computer science and engineering
research to innovative projects that present high-quality,
high-content K-12 education materials on-line. Researchers
working on the Digital Libraries Initiative projects
expect that their research advances will radically
change the way individuals and organizations gather
and use information. This initiative is also another
great example of how NSF is combing it's efforts with
mission agencies like ARPA and NASA to benefit the
nation both in education and research.
Research on Learning and Education
The Unlocking Our Future study called for a
greater emphasis on research on education within the
federal education portfolio. The President's Committee
of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has
also recommended boosting funding in this area.
Federal funds for education research dropped fivefold
from the mid-1970's to the mid-1980's. PCAST has recommended
that educational research funding be restored to at
least ½ of 1% of total K through 12 educational expenditures
at current levels; this would amount to about $1.5
billion per year.
As a researcher and an educator myself, I am in full
agreement both with the attention being paid to, and
the discoveries being made by, researchers across
the different disciplines who are taking innovative
approaches to education research. I consider NSF's
participation in a new Inter-agency Education Research
Initiative with the Department of Education and the
National Institutes of Health a high priority.
Education in the future may be highly focused in subject
matter, but it will offer diverse opportunities --
drawn from a diverse set of resources -- for learning
within a single classroom. It is also an extremely
complex process that can only be understood through
the combined efforts, and the combined scientific
and technological toolkits, of many different disciplines.
These toolkits have become extraordinarily powerful,
and offer us unprecedented opportunities to gain a
deep understanding of the education process at all
The Interagency Education Research Initiative embodies
these themes. It draws from disciplines that were
previously distinct, and methodological levels that
did not always effectively inform one another. It
brings them to bear -- together -- on the educational
challenges that face our nation. This strengthens
our knowledge base, and couples research-based teaching
tools with evaluation.
The initiative also capitalizes on the complementary
strengths of NSF, the Department of Education and
the National Institutes of Health. Working together,
we have a unique capacity to lead a substantive effort
on education research.
At NSF, we are wholly committed to this initiative.
We anticipate that our partnership will continue to
flourish. We are looking forward to an important next
stage of this program, where science learning will
be studied at the same level of emphasis as reading
NSF Graduate Teaching Fellows
in K-12 Education
Our FY2000 budget also highlights a new K through 12
Graduate Teaching Fellows Program. We think this will
boost the content of K-12 education and improve graduate
and undergraduate education at the same time. Graduate
students are pairing up with teachers at the K through
12 level to supplement their disciplinary studies
with direct classroom experience.
This pilot program will target teaching and learning
at several levels at once. The college and university
students would serve as content experts and provide
role models for the younger students.
The K-12 teachers would guide them through the ins
and outs of pedagogy and classroom teaching.
We see it as a classic win-win. We improve the depth
of K-12 science and math courses, and we add some
breadth to the experiences of our top graduate students
and undergraduates. This is part of a comprehensive
approach to workforce development that reaches from
grade school through graduate school.
Coordination and Cooperation
with Other Agencies
In today's technology-dependent society, all federal
agencies must collaborate to ensure that all Americans
will have the knowledge and skills they need to succeed
in the future. As a member of the National Science
and Technology Council (NSTC) Committee on Science
-- which coordinates many science and math programs
-- NSF participates in efforts to coordinate federal
science education programs. NSF works closely with
other agencies to ensure that its programs do not
duplicate other agencies' programs, but rather complement,
and link where appropriate, efforts to maximize the
overall impact of federal support for science and
The opportunities for collaboration and cooperation
between agencies are many. TIMSS itself was a key
collaboration between the Department of Education
and NSF. I have touched on some others like the IERI
and the Digital Libraries Initiative, but let me mention
a few more collaborations that emphasize integration
of research and education. In science and math education,
the links among inquiry, discovery and learning is
omnipresent. All researchers - whether at a university,
a national lab or circling the earth in a space station
- should link their inquiries with the education of
the next generation.
Take astronomy for example -- where both NASA and NSF
already collaborate closely on research priorities.
With innovative uses of the Web, we can now bring
real research discoveries into the classroom. Students
on-line can create their own atmosphere around a virtual
planet and watch it evolve. Last fall, three high-school
students at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Western
Massachusetts discovered a new icy object in the Kuiper
Belt. They made the find while poring over actual
star-field images on the Web from the Cerro-Tololo
Inter-American Observatory in Chile.
Of course, NASA also supports astronomy - with the
dramatic photos from the Hubble Telescope being just
one example of how NASA research can spark the imaginations
of young people. There is no question that the NASA
website by itself represents an impressive education
It is also no coincidence that many of the most successful
multi-agency collaborations -- like Digital Libraries
-- involve innovative uses of information technology.
IT is a powerful force for collaboration both in research
and education. Investing in IT is a priority for NSF,
NASA and DoE first through the Next Generation internet
Initiative and now with the Information Technology
for the 21st Century Initiative. These collaborations
have been proven to be highly profitable for all agencies
The great hope -- yet to be realized -- is that computerized
tools will bring individualized learning to all --
stimulating natural curiosity, providing access to
all the knowledge in the world, and enabling everyone
to learn in his or her singular style. Surrounded
by hype and hope, the idea of unleashing computers
for education reform is still but a vision and needful
of much research.
Conclusion -- The Future of
NSF Educational Programs
Finally, let me touch upon what I see is the future
for NSF in Education.
If I were asked to give one word that best describes
NSF's education efforts for the future, I would have
to say "Experimentation." If we are to succeed in
making our education system truly world class across
our great and diverse nation, we must better integrate
our research portfolio with the education we support.
Integration of research and education means investing
in inquiry-based, hands on learning - that's a given.
But integration also means investing in activities
that are high risk, but that can bring high payoffs
if ultimately successful. We must experiment, we must
try new approaches.
In the future, I see NSF focusing on three critical
- Building better links with NSF research programs
and K-12 education - we have seen some successes
- especially with linking students with researchers
through information technology. I believe NSF
should support much more K-12 education throughout
the entire NSF budget, including the research
- Promoting new strategies and collaborations for
teacher preparation - This includes new teacher
education centers and an expanded K-12 graduate
teaching fellows effort.
- Increasing research on learning - with exciting
new discoveries occurring across the disciplines,
we have new opportunity to develop a radically
new understanding of how we learn. The science
of learning can lead us to entirely new ways of
educating our children. It must be supported by
expanding the interagency research collaboration
In conclusion, the challenges that we face in education
are difficult, no doubt, but they are not insurmountable.
By approaching education from several different angles,
we are coming upon new discoveries that give us a
clearer picture of how we can proceed. What originally
looked like a sheer cliff is gradually revealing toeholds
on which we can climb to ever greater heights.
I am sure that with closer collaborations between the
science and education agencies in the future, such
efforts will lead to outstanding opportunities to
improve K-12 SMET education. I look forward to these
exciting collaborations. I look forward as well to
working with you and this entire Committee, Mr. Chairman,
to help make the K-12 science and math education system
in United States truly world-class.