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NSF & Congress

Hearing Summary: House Research Subcommitee
Meeting the Demands of the Knowledge Based Economy: Strengthening Undergraduate Science, Mathematics and Engineering Education

March 7, 2002

Subcommittee Chairman Nick Smith (R-MI) opened by stating that there was clearly a role for the National Science Foundation in developing successful programs to improve undergraduate education. Chairman Smith maintained that the path was not clear on how best to achieve broad improvements in science, nathematics, and engineering (SME) education for undergraduate students, but future war efforts and technology development depended on a science-educated public. This is true both for those pursuing technical careers and the general workforce, and such improvements need to begin in the K-12 system. Each of the witnesses represented a different perspective on the problems in SME education and potential solutions.

Carl Wieman, Ph.D., a physics professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics, testified that improving SME training for undergraduates would necessitate a cultural change in major research universities. Widespread support and incentives for improved teaching at the departmental level is needed if progress is to be made in the quality of teaching. Although decreasing class size in the large (100+ student) sections of freshman and sophomore level introductory courses is desirable, the economics of smaller classes make it impractical to implement, particularly with state institutions facing budgetary constraints. Incentives from the federal government for broad SME improvements in undergraduate teaching would help, Weiman testified.

Kathleen P. Howard, Ph.D., assistant professor of chemistry, Swarthmore College, gave the perspective of a private liberal arts and engineering college renowned for its rigorous academics. Swarthmore operates with an 8:1 student/faculty ratio and uses no teaching assistants. Swarthmore's chemistry program owes its success to an intensive lab-based curriculum for both majors and non-majors. All majors perform undergraduate research and there is extensive faculty-student interaction that benefits both student and faculty. Improvements to SME undergraduate education could be gained by increasing NSF career awards for teaching; stipends for undergraduate students, summer support for teaching faculty, research leave for faculty, and enhanced equipment/instrumentation grants.

Daniel Wubah, Ph.D., a biology professor at James Madison University, which is a full-service public university, testified that a goal for higher education should be to break out of the "research vs. teaching" debate. Universities need to take a comprehensive view of "scholars," a view that integrates teaching and research. In addition, universities need to view students not as part of a pipeline with a single entry point, but as entering a "pathway" that has many entry and re-entry points. Both peer-to-peer and faculty-student mentorships are key to good teaching and successful students. The K-12 connection is important for good SME at undergraduate level.

Steven Lee Johnson, Ph.D., Provost and Chief Operating Officer of Sinclair Community College, Dayton, Ohio, maintained that community colleges are critical for SME education because they are serving increased numbers of women, minorities, and continuing education students. Community colleges deliver quality, accessible initial and life-long educational opportunities. Specific improvements to SME undergraduate education could be gained from more NSF support for community colleges and an expansion of this segment of the nation's educational portfolio.

J. Narl Davidson, Ph.D., Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Interim Dean of Engineering, Georgia Institute of Technology, presented the view of a an urban, research-oriented college of engineering. There are no silver bullets for improving undergraduate SME, Davidson testified, but new ideas and experiments will help move the issue forward. Georgia Tech's successful Industry for Teachers program links teachers with technical experts to improve the quality of instruction. Another successful program pairs science education Ph.D. students with elementary schools to improve the K-12 SME experience. Davidson proposed that NSF should expand the Research Experiences for Undergraduates program; facilitate recruitment conferences to bring science and engineering professionals into teaching roles in classrooms; and establish a system of fast response, small grants to improve teaching.