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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
The National Educational Research Policy and Priorities Board
Department of Education
Washington, D.C.

March 18, 1999

Slide 1: Title

Thank you, Dr. Hakuta and members of the board. It is a pleasure for me to join all of you. You collectively bring a wealth of expertise to what I consider to be perhaps the most critical research area facing our nation.

Let me begin by sharing a story I heard following the snow we had last week. A friend told me that his car slid off the road and into a small ditch.

Fortunately, one of his neighbors drove by with his 4x4 pickup--complete with a towing hook. Just the kind of vehicle you need in the suburbs.

In any event, they hooked a chain around the car's rear bumper and started pulling. After a few seconds, the car lurched--and then the bumper flew off, leaving the car in the ditch.

The driver of the truck than shrugged his shoulders and said: "Bob, if we don't start pulling out bigger pieces--we're going to be here all day."

This story does more than just remind us that the weather has improved immensely since last week. It also reminds us that we need to think beyond piecemeal approaches. It's time to think big.

Slide 2: Imperatives

It is no secret that education in this country is seen as an imperative.

  • 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.

  • 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 requirements.

  • Governors across the country, trying to stay ahead of the curve, have set up state science and technology initiatives to spur economic development. They are concerned by the very real possibility that they will not have enough workers with sufficient education and training to fill those jobs.

It is an open question as to whether we are ready to meet these needs.

The results of the recent TIMSS study were a wake-up call. We all learned that U.S. high school students trail those of other industrialized nations in math and science performance.

Our teaching materials, furthermore, were found to be superficial and unfocused by international standards. As the National Science Board concluded in its recent report: "U.S. students are not taught what they need to know."

These findings should be seen as a warning sign. If we're not mindful, we might fail to meet our nation's educational needs.

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.

Researchers and educators, working together, are making the kinds of progress that will help us meet and overcome the enormous educational challenges that we face.

The National Research Council, the National Science Board, and the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology have all issued reports recently.

These reports have assessed the scope of the challenges ahead, and suggested policy roadmaps that we can follow to improve significantly the effectiveness of our educational system.

All three reports stress that research can and must play a central role in strengthening our educational system.

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 of 1 percent of total K-12 educational expenditures (currently that would amount to about $1.5 billion).

As a researcher and an educator myself, I am in full agreement both with the attention being paid, and the discoveries being made by researchers--from all of the many different disciplines--who are taking innovative approaches to education research.

Slide 3: Learning About Learning

Some of these findings offer tantalizing suggestions of the opportunities that lie ahead, to educate people in potentially very different and more effective ways.

For example, several lines of research suggest that the developmental capacities of children may be greater than we have traditionally assumed.

We're learning that, at a strikingly early age, children can benefit from being read to, and start to appreciate numerical concepts.

They may also be able to use relatively abstract concepts from scientific reasoning and mathematics (like hypothesis testing and rates of change) much earlier than they would normally be introduced to these topics in a traditional curriculum.

How might that affect our teaching of reading, math, and science, to our children?

Can we introduce them to more sophisticated concepts, and develop useful technologies that reinforce the learning process? These research findings suggest that we can.

Slide 4: Meeting Needs of Individuals

We have also begun to learn about some of the differences in how children learn. We know they bring different experiences and motivations into the classroom. These and other factors affect performance.

Learning is a multi-modal process, and classrooms of the future must meet the needs of children who learn in many different ways.

Slide 5: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Learning

We are also seeing rapid progress in our understanding of learning at its most fundamental level.

Researchers are now bringing new biomedical, computational, and interdisciplinary tools to learning research. For example, we're learning about intimate biochemical events--what specific proteins are synthesized at the earliest stages of memory formation.

Using imaging technology, we're also able to see what brain pathways are associated with novel versus practiced behaviors.

These mechanisms, at a very basic level, may seem a long way off from the classroom. We should therefore view this in the context of truly basic research.

We have found time and time again that fundamental discoveries can have profound impacts that go well beyond what anyone would have predicted.

In education research, likewise, we should have no fear of thinking big and thinking new.

William Brody, the president of Johns Hopkins University, addressed this point in a recent report from the Council on Competitiveness.

"We are faced with something new and profoundly different." he wrote. "We will need to create entirely new paradigms of learning."

Slide 6: Education Investments at NSF

Turning now to NSF, we are committed to supporting a whole continuum of research efforts related to learning and education, and to the integration of education with our research programs.

Many people think of NSF as being a research agency, but in fact, education and training programs comprise nearly 20 percent of our budget and involve all seven of our directorates.

A sampling of NSF's portfolio, includes education programs, research opportunities for students, education research, and integrated programs. I'll just mention a few examples.

Engineering Research Centers (ERC):

  • NSF has introduced successful reforms to undergraduate engineering curricula at dozens of universities, whereby the traditional "weeding out" method was replaced by a redesigned, integrated curriculum that better engaged students' interests and ultimately produced better engineers.

Systemic Reform:

  • Our systemic reform programs are based on the principle that rigorous, high-quality math and science courses should be available to all students, not just the few. These programs have resulted in education improvements on a large scale.

  • Science and math assessment scores have improved, enrollments in challenging classes have increased, and disparities in attainment have been reduced.

  • The GLOBE--Global Learning to Benefit the Earth--and Geoscience Education programs are another example.

  • They aim to increase students' understanding of their planet and their environment through the development of new K-12 materials and through an interagency, international network over the World-Wide Web.

We also support opportunities for researchers in all disciplines to contribute to education at all levels.

  • Starting faculty members are eligible for CAREER awards, for integrated proposals specifying both their research and educational interests.

  • Post-docs have in-depth content knowledge but limited pedagogical experience.

  • Through a program called Postdoctoral Fellowships in Science, Math, Engineering, and Technology Education, they are now applying their research skills to undergraduate education in a cross-disciplinary environment.

  • Our FY2000 budget also highlights a new K-12 Graduate Teaching Fellows Program.

  • Graduate students are pairing up with teachers at the K-12 level to supplement their disciplinary studies with direct classroom experience.

I've been giving you a sketch, by way of example, of some of the broader themes that I see as an integral part of educational research.

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 levels.

Slide 7: IERI Model

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 our agencies. Working together, we have a unique capacity to lead a substantive effort on education research.

At NSF, we are wholly committed to this initiative and hope that our partnership continues 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 and math.

Slide 8: Conclusion

In conclusion, the challenges that we face in education are difficult, no doubt, but they are not insurmountable.

By approaching research topics 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 higher heights.

We have the scientific tools, and a strategy in place, that will allow us to better understand learning--and all of its complexities--and to apply fundamental knowledge to concrete educational improvements.

Our coordinated efforts will lead to outstanding opportunities, and I look forward to our continuing collaboration.



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