Dr. Rita R. Colwell
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
The National Educational Research Policy and Priorities
Department of Education
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
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
These findings should be seen as a warning sign. If
we're not mindful, we might fail to meet our nation's
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
All three reports stress that research can and must
play a central role in strengthening our educational
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.
- 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
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
- 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
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
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
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.