Dr. Neal F. Lane


Plenary Address

Shaping the Future:
Strategies for Revitalizing Undergraduate Education

Sheraton Washington Hotel

Washington, DC

July 12, 1996

Institution-Wide Reform: Time to Turn Up The Heat

Good morning. As someone who has devoted many years to teaching undergraduates--sometimes successfully, other times not so successfully--it is an immense pleasure for me to join all of you this morning and lend my support to your efforts to revitalize undergraduate education.

I want to thank Luther, Bob Watson, and the staff of NSF's Division of Undergraduate Education for effectively moving mountains to produce a conference of this magnitude. And I especially want to thank Mel George and the members of the review committee for their leadership and hard work over the past year.

We also owe a special thanks to Don Kennedy for spearheading the NRC's role in this process, and to the Exxon Education Foundation for its generous support of the NRC's activities in this area.

I also feel I owe each of you a word of thanks--and perhaps an apology as well--for consenting to come to Washington in the middle of July. You've gotten something of a break from our normal weather pattern. The high today is expected to be only 85 degrees. Notice that I said only 85 degrees.

The average daily temperature approaches 90 degrees this time of year, and the 100's are never out of the question. Combine that with high levels of humidity and the searing summer sun and you'll know why some here think the city should erect one more monument on the mall--one in honor of the physicist Jean Peltier. In case you don't know, he discovered the process we now call air conditioning. I'm sorry that NSF cannot take credit for that important work.

But there is a method in our madness of bringing you to Washington in July. You may have heard the old saying, some people change when they feel the heat, others when they see the light.

Since you are all here as agents of change for the institution-wide reform of undergraduate education, we thought large doses of heat and light might help you strengthen your resolve. For this reason, my talk this morning is entitled, Institution-Wide Reform: Time to Turn Up The Heat.

It is no exaggeration to say that institution-wide reform is a challenge so monumental that it will severely test our collective resolve. Institution-wide reform means just that, across the entire institution. It requires that we break down barriers of all kinds and work together--across departments and disciplines, across bureaucracies and institutions, and most importantly, across the entire student body.

This last point sums up what is perhaps our greatest challenge. The review committee captured this challenge when it adopted the goal of reaching all students and promoting inquiry-based, hands on learning experiences in science, mathematics, and engineering.

Achieving this goal is vitally important to all of NSF. Education and learning are at the core of our mission. I often tell people that NSF is involved in everything from elementary schools to elementary particles--and it's not clear which is more complicated or more challenging. I know from my own experience that teaching science is just as hard, in some ways harder, than doing science.

I've always enjoyed teaching undergraduates, and learned early on that good teaching requires immense amounts of time and energy. For example, in those rare instances when my lecture for a given class was already prepared, perhaps from a previous year, then I could get ready for a 50 minute lecture with 3 hours of preparation. The time and energy required increased exponentially from there. There were instances when I could not put the time required into preparation, and I was often disappointed with the outcome.

Just over a month ago, we received some startling news that may require us to devote even more time and energy to our efforts. You may have seen or read about the results of NSF's latest survey on public science literacy. Dave Barry took a lighthearted look at the results in a column that ran in the Washington Post last Sunday.

Other journalists took a more serious look at the results. The New York Times article ran under the headline, "Americans Flunk Science." The Los Angeles Times was inspired to draft an editorial entitled, "America's Failing Grade in Science."

When we examine the survey results, it's not clear whether we should laugh or cry. Over 2,000 adults were surveyed, and on average they could correctly answer only 5 out of 10 questions about scientific knowledge. Fifty percent correct usually does not yield a passing grade, and this is no time for grading on the curve.

Some of the specific results were even more disturbing.

Some even more disturbing news, and news more relevant to this gathering, was related to a part of the survey that has generated few headlines. The survey for the first time asked people to describe in their own words what it means to study something scientifically. It's not a trivial question, and the surveyors were flexible in their interpretations of the responses--giving lots of partial credit, so to speak.

Even with this flexibility, however, the results made me sit up and take notice.

What does this mean? Consider that nearly every day, newspapers run articles about new drug therapies, medical procedures, and about the risks associated with everything from pesticides to power lines. Based on this survey, it appears that only a small fraction of American adults understand scientific inquiry well enough to assess whether the findings presented in the media have any basis in science.

In his new book, The Demon Haunted World, the eminent astronomer and author Carl Sagan suggests that this lack of understanding portends a disturbing future. He writes:

"Finding the occasional straw of truth awash in a great ocean of confusion and bamboozle requires vigilance, dedication, and courage. But if we don't practice these tough habits of thought...we risk becoming a nation of suckers, a world of suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan who saunters along."

In my view, there is only one way to keep us from becoming the gullible nation Sagan describes, and it begins with your work and your leadership.

We know that only a small portion of undergraduates--fewer than 20% in fact--take a mathematics or science course after their freshman or sophomore year of college. The undergraduate years are perhaps our last chance, certainly our best chance, to reach all those future teachers, lawyers, executives, neighbors, voters, members of Congress, and taxpayers--people for whom science and technology are at best remote curiosities and at worst impenetrable mysteries.

Of course, getting students to sign up for more courses is only part of the challenge, and I would argue a small part. This is one situation where quality matters substantially more than quantity, and our focus should be on how we teach rather than how much we teach.

My own love of science has lasted a lifetime and is due as much to hobbies as to formal schooling. I grew up in Oklahoma, in the middle of tornado alley, where just watching the weather sparks your curiosity about science and the natural world. I was the classic curious kid, with microscopes, chemistry sets, rock collections--and all kinds of other scientific toys and curiosities that indulged my intellect and taxed my parent's patience.

Throughout my childhood, my father would take me out to limestone outcroppings along the Texas-Oklahoma border to look for fossils. These were great spots for brachiopods, trilobites and huge cephalopods known as ammonites, which my dad lugged back to the car. I still have some of the fossils I collected on those trips.

I often reflect back on my own experiences when I think about the National Science Foundation's contribution to mathematics and science education. That same spirit of exploration and discovery that I received outside of school is now being brought into our schools, colleges, and universities. That is happening because of the hard work and leadership all of you here today are providing.

You probably already know that NSF is committed to inquiry-based learning in mathematics and science at all levels--from kindergarten through graduate school. The NSF Strategic Plan includes this under the rubric of the integration of research and education. In simple terms, this means learning by doing, getting your hands dirty, experiencing the excitement of the discovery process, and bringing something of the culture and practice of research into the classroom.

We have already established a number of programs that promote the integration of research and education. The CAREER program is aimed at young faculty, and we support a number of programs at the disciplinary and departmental level. We have also established a new activity, Recognition Awards for the Integration of Research and Education that focuses specifically on research universities. The Division of Undergraduate Education's Institution-wide reform program has also emerged as a vital part of our overall efforts.

As we look to the future, we expect that employers will seek people who not only are well versed in science and technology concepts, but also are adept at learning through experimentation, inquiry, critical examination, and discovery--all characteristics of research.

Harold Raveche, the President of Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey summed this up in an op-ed that ran in The New York Times a few months ago. He wrote, "employers today are seeking a highly trainable work force, rather than just a highly trained work force."

In his recent bestseller, the famous economist Lester Thurow put this another way, writing that "Americans are not used to a world where ordinary production workers have to have mathematical skills." I would add that we are also not used to a world where nurses, auto mechanics, farmers, and other front-line employees need the kind of critical thinking skills that one best acquires through research.

Because of this, NSF is committed to seeing that all students gain the skills and tools they need to deal with the complex and the unpredictable, regardless of where their careers eventually take them. We know it can be done, and in the decade since the Neal Report, we've seen it done. Calculus has been perhaps the biggest success story, but it is far from the only one, and I'm sure you will share countless others here this week.

To conclude, I would just like to say once again that now is the time for all us--and by that I include NSF, our partners in government and industry, and all the institutions we support...now is the time for all of us to raise our sights and commit ourselves to institution-wide reform. As I said earlier in my talk, this is a monumental challenge, but it also presents us with a monumental opportunity.

Many of us have waited years to pursue a vision like the one presented in the review committee's report. It is a vision that reaches all students, increases what we expect of them, and, at the same time, taps their natural sense of wonder and curiosity. You should know that NSF is committed to working with you to help fulfill this vision.

I realize it may have been somewhat cruel and unusual of us to call you to Washington in the middle of July. But I for one can think of no better time for us to turn up the heat and shed new light on how best to revitalize undergraduate education.