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Photo of Kathie L. Olsen
Credit: Sam Kittner/kittner.com

Dr. Kathie L. Olsen
Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
National Science Foundation

"Project Kaleidoscope: Sixteen Years of Excellence in Finding 'What Works' in Undergraduate STEM Education"
PKAL Leadership Meeting

University of Maryland
Baltimore, MD
October 9, 2005

See also slide presentation.

If you're interested in reproducing any of the slides, please contact The Office of Legislative and Public Affairs: (703) 292-8070.

[Slide #1: Project Kaleidoscope]
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Thank you. I am pleased to join you in celebrating Project Kaleidoscope's 16 years of excellent work.

First, let me thank all of you on behalf of NSF for your efforts in building and sustaining strong undergraduate programs in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. I can not overstate the importance of your efforts for both generating the next scientific leaders and educating a scientifically literate citizenry.

Special thanks also to PKAL's Director Jeanne Narum for inviting me to be here with you. No one turns down Jeanne! She is noted for her leadership in the field of undergraduate STEM education, particularly for her work with PKAL, and as the Director of the Independent Colleges Office.

As many of you know, Jeanne was instrumental in establishing the Academic Research Facilities Modernization Program at the National Science Foundation. It was a unique program that focused on renovating research laboratories to ultimately enhance the teaching and research environment of institutions. The submitted applications were divided into three categories for review. The review panels had scientists, managers and architects. I had the privilege of chairing a group in each of the three categories during the four years, and I believe that at least one institution in nearly every state received an award to revolutionize its research space.

I also would like to acknowledge my friend and colleague, the President of UMBC, Freeman Hrabowski . Freeman spoke yesterday on "the reflections of a leader" and I hope everyone here had a chance to hear his remarks.

For many years now, Project Kaleidoscope has led the way in finding "what works" and putting those novel approaches into the college science classroom. You have continually experimented with new ideas and new frameworks to reshape and reform undergraduate science education. We celebrate both your ideas and actions. You are proof of the maxim that:

"What we stand for
should never change,
but how we do things
should always be changeable."

Let's begin with a quiz: It was the size of a beach ball, weighed a little over 184 pounds, and changed the way the United States looked at science and math education forever. The answer is: Sputnik.

[Slide #2: Sputnik Photo]
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In the fall of 1957, the tiny Russian satellite electrified--some say terrified--the science and policy communities, and much of the nation.

Immediately after the launch, there was speculation that Sputnik was headed for the moon to detonate a thermonuclear weapon during a lunar eclipse, in honor of a Soviet holiday. Some worried that Russia would soon be able to drop nuclear bombs on us from orbiting platforms.

But Sputnik did something else. It was the spark that ignited the creativity and drive of our nation. In the two years after Sputnik, we witnessed the founding of NASA where I had the honor of being Chief Scientist. Sputnik and the Space Race inspired many of the people I worked with every day. Given our "age"--we all remember what we were doing when the U.S. landed on the Moon. It was one of those pivotal moments for us as a nation.

Congress also enacted the National Defense Education Act of 1958 in response to the Sputnik wake-up call.

[Slide #3: NDE Act]
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The Act states, "The Congress hereby finds and declares that the security of the Nation requires the fullest development of the mental resources and technical skills of its young men and women. The present emergency demands that additional and more adequate educational opportunity be made available."

One pundit likened Sputnik to the shot of a starter's pistol in an exciting new race. Sputnik had all the elements of great drama: rivalry, urgency, a perceived threat, and the struggle to achieve. The elements of the contest were clear to see.

Let me pose this question: What is our "Sputnik Moment" in 2005? What is our great drama? Is it 9-11? Is it the "energy challenge"? Is it the environment? Is it sustainability? Is it "globalization" and a new way of doing business? Is it the societal evolution to the "knowledge-based society"? Is it our "inability to have stability"--which was discussed by Dr. Robert Atkinson, VP of the Progressive Policy Institute? I would suggest that all of these challenges, as well as others not noted here, are critical, although of a different nature than one Sputnik that galvanized the country for a whole decade.

[Slide #4: The Clarion Call]
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We have been hearing the alarms and we need to act.

Nobel Laureate, Leon Lederman, asserted in the NY Times, that; "The combination of Education & Research may be the most powerful capability the nation can nurture in times of stress and uncertainty."

The Hart-Rudman Commission on National Security to 2025 "warned" that our failure to invest in science and to reform math and science education were the second biggest threat to our national security--with only the threat of a weapon of mass destruction in an American city to be of greater danger. The Commission unanimously concluded that "the inadequacies of our systems of research and education pose a greater threat to U.S. national security over the next quarter century than any potential conventional war that we might imagine." These comments encompass the entire education spectrum--K-12, undergraduate education, graduate education and lifetime learning.

A more recent report by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (June 2004), Sustaining the Nation's Innovation Ecosystems: Maintaining the strength of Our Science and Engineering Capabilities, states, "We recognize that one of the core drivers of this innovation ecosystem is the strength of the country with respect to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills, and we conclude that the U.S. system is threatened by significant changes in the global technical talent pool and the loss of global market share in technical talent." Recommendations focused on three major areas--not surprisingly: improving the K-12 educational system, improving K-12 teacher preparation, and improving undergraduate and graduate STEM training and retention.

We are hearing from our leaders "that countries which fail to invest in basic science and math and which fail to insist on adequate math and science education will fall behind economically and in national security capabilities."

But the context of this "emergency" has a very different feel. Back in 1957, an Iron Curtain separated "us" from "them." This is not the case today. We still face some major differences in ideology, but we are learning to find ways to bridge differences with countries like India, China, and Indonesia. And further, we sometimes find that our challengers are also our colleagues, trading partners, and in some cases, our allies; countries such as Japan, Canada, Australia, and the EU. This challenge is about the economy, and I like to say---our "well being."

Other countries have learned from the success of the United States, and this new "race" is about laying the groundwork for technical and scientific preeminence in an increasingly competitive global environment.

To achieve this, many countries are making tremendous investments in STEM education infrastructures and in their fundamental approaches to graduate, undergraduate and K-12 education.

Collectively, India, China, South Korea, and Japan, have more than doubled the number of students receiving bachelor's degrees in the natural sciences since 1975 and quadrupled their number earning engineering degrees. Since the late 1980s, the EU has produced more natural science and engineering PhDs than the U.S.

These countries are hungry to succeed and increasingly capable of doing so. In this highly capable and competitive environment, the U.S. faces a daunting task of supplying our nation with the next generation of S and T workers.

[Slide #5: S & T Employment: 2000 – 2010]
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And there will be demand for them. As you can see, the Department of Labor predicts that job growth for nearly all technical fields is expected to significantly outpace the average job growth in this country. In this Idea Race, this Innovation Race, we are going to have to run a lot harder just to keep up.

Organizations and institutions like PKAL and the NSF have used a bottom-up approach to provide a sturdy and successful foundation in research and education. We seek innovative answers to complex problems from researchers in the field. The best solutions make their way into practice, sometimes replacing the older modalities.

Our two organizations have enjoyed a long and productive relationship. Central to our common purpose is a common approach--the quest for answers that can be validated by research and results.

Current and future research promises to yield important gains in the fields of Nanotechnology, Supercomputing, Neuroscience, Human Social Dynamics, and STEM education to name a few. We are in focused pursuit of frontier research and education.

At Project Kaleidoscope, you are seeking best practices in the undergraduate STEM classroom.

[Slide #6: Teachers and Students in a Science Demonstration
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What we know is that the old method of passively watching someone else do a demonstration doesn’t do much to spur a passion for science.

[Slide #7: Students Engaged in Real Research]
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Students get excited by real research, by working side-by-side with teachers and mentors on real-world problems. A quote from your website makes this clear, "the single greatest influence that transforms a science student into a young scientist is an undergraduate research experience." It is not enough to teach it. Students must live it in the classroom. And I can attest to that from my own experiences.

Likewise, your vision of the ideal college instructor is one whose research is coupled with teaching. At NSF, all of the research proposals we consider must satisfy two criteria: first, the intellectual merit of the research and second, the broader impacts. These impacts are the educational and outreach components.

Here is a question we must both answer.

[Slide #8: Engineering vs. Leisure & Fitness studies]
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It's something that concerns my NASA colleagues and concerns me, and I know you as well. Why is it that the number of PhDs is so small relative to the number of ninth graders intending to study S & T?

In this increasingly competitive environment, we must find faster and more innovative ways to move our nation. This requires attracting and training the men and women who will be our next generation of S&E workforce.

The ranks of science and engineering also become richer and stronger with increased diversity. Broadened participation is power. It is the cutting edge we require to stay out-front. In the 21st century, diversity is a matter of social, intellectual, and economic survival. In a knowledge and innovation-based economy, STEM education for the underrepresented is a required investment.

[Slide #10: Minority participation in S&E workforce]
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There's a lot of work to be done.

One success story was written here at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

[Slide #11: Meyerhoff Program]
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The Meyerhoff Scholars Program has been extremely successful in engaging and supporting underrepresented students, particularly male students, in science and engineering. As a result of the program's success, it has been extended to all students while maintaining a focus on underrepresented groups.

[Slide #12: 21st Century Scientists and Engineers]
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There are some other positive indicators coming from independent 4-year colleges. The statistics show important forward motion in our ability to attract candidates that will produce the next generation of scientific leaders. I grew up in Oregon and lived near Reed College. So I decided to look at Reed as an example.

Reed College provides their STEM undergraduates with a hands-on research experience they call "the process of discovery." Because of this, NSF named Reed as a recipient of the National Award for the Integration of Research and Education.

Among the 1,100 biology students for whom they have survey data, nearly 200 now have PhDs. That is a much higher percentage than at most colleges and universities.

Reed also has the highest number of Rhodes Scholars in the country. A full 43% of them are in science disciplines. All Reed science students must complete an original research thesis to graduate. These students are engaged in cutting-edge, truly original science.

Reed is not unique. I went to Chatham College in Pittsburgh, PA. We all had to complete an original research thesis to graduate and I believe that is true at many of the four-year colleges. One of the concerns raised in many reports occurs at the Undergraduate level: students enter college with an interest in STEM areas but then drop out or change majors. That was not true of my experience--not when you have the privilege of attending one of these colleges that are really focused on passionate teaching, integration of research, and everything that constitutes a quality undergraduate experience.

Four year colleges, independent colleges and universities, and other institutions that truly focus on a quality undergraduate experience are leaders in this transformation. Each of you here could tell your own success stories, and I know there are many. This seminar has been a great opportunity for you to share them with each other and to pick up new ideas, and as you've seen from the statistics, this is critically important. We can transform our educational system, but it won't be easy.

The National Science Foundation is your partner in this transformation, and I’m here today to ask if that partnership is working and what we can do better? As you know, we support education and public literacy in science across the spectrum of age groups, and all these programs are relevant to what you do in PKAL.

You rely on a high level of public interest in science in order to generate interest in science careers. You rely on better prepared students from K-12 to be ready for the quality education you strive to make sure they get. And, you rely on excellence in our graduate institutions and a strong production of PhDs to replenish the undergraduate teaching faculty. But, we have a few programs and activities that I'd like to highlight because of their direct relevance to quality undergraduate education.

  • We have programs to introduce innovative technology and methodology into the curriculum. They are critical for recruitment and retention at the undergraduate level.

  • We emphasize the integration of research and education in all our grants, and recognize faculty-student interaction as a key ingredient to success.

    [Slide #13, Presidential Awards]
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    We especially highlight successful mentoring programs that provide students with the opportunity to work individually with their instructors through participation in the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Mentoring. The Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers also has an essential criteria for community leadership in the integration of research and education.

  • One of our most important Foundation-wide programs is the Research Experience for Undergraduates or REU. The REU program seeks to expand student participation in all kinds of research--whether in one particular S & T field or across disciplines. There is a clear mandate for educational research as well. The REU initiative supports the kind of hands-on, relevant research that gives undergraduates an experience that has professional relevance. At the core of REU is the interaction of students with faculty.

  • We also have the Research at Undergraduate Institutions (RUI) program that supports research by faculty members of predominantly undergraduate institutions. This is a tremendous program for helping these faculty to stay fresh and engaged in their field of expertise. It also creates many opportunities for undergraduates to participate in that faculty research. In conjunction with the RUI, we have Research Opportunity Awards (ROA) that allow faculty at predominantly undergraduate institutions, including community colleges, to pursue research as visiting scientists with NSF-supported investigators at other institutions.

Both PKAL and NSF also focus on achieving a diverse and inclusive research experience for undergraduates. Careers in science are not just the traditional laboratory scientist or college faculty position.

[Slide #14: Arrow Diagram of Science Branching Out Into Possible Careers]
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We train students in STEM for a wide variety of careers and we work to communicate to students the vast number of doors a STEM education can open. Strong STEM education also bolsters many disciplines beyond the sciences, and forward thinking undergraduate programs at many of your institutions are offering majors that combine traditional science with fields like public policy or business.

PKAL and NSF have a responsibility to provide leadership to make STEM education "a national security priority" for policy-makers, teachers, and parents.

Project Kaleidoscope's primary focus is undergraduate students. But you also help NSF focus our programs across the educational spectrum. How well are students being prepared to enter college? What would you like to see being taught in K -12 classrooms that would give undergraduates a better "tool box" for their college coursework? How well are PhD’s and postdocs being prepared to join the ranks of college faculty?

Isaac Asimov once said: "There is a single light of science, and to brighten it anywhere is to brighten it everywhere." We must be willing to lead the way in replacing shadow with new light. To do this, we will need courageous and compassionate teachers, researchers, and policy makers.

The opportunities for leadership exist at all levels. I might even amend that to say that the responsibility for leadership exists at all levels. I urge you to engage all of the participants in the PKAL program to take leadership roles in diversifying the ranks of Science and Technology.

We know that everyone needs what we call an "existence proof." When we ask underrepresented students to become scientists, they need to see the role models at the head of the classroom, in organizations, and institutions, and in their peer groups.

Your Leadership Initiative community is taking the bold and necessary step to help develop leadership teams that will gain frontline knowledge on what is working best in STEM education.

Like project Kaleidoscope, our way of doing things at NSF involves being always in search of best practices. That is why I am staying for the rest of the day…to hear the outcomes of this meeting and to see how your ideas may foster our new ideas.

It is clear that we share the same mission. We rely on your ongoing help in keeping those endless frontiers unfolding, for increasing participation of the underrepresented for STEM disciplines.

When you sent your original proposal to NSF’s EHR Directorate, you had two major goals in mind. First, you wanted to build local teams of faculty whose job it would be to strengthen undergraduate learning environments and give students the resources they need to succeed. Second, PKAL sought to foster a greater understanding of how a strong undergraduate STEM community serves students, science, and society.

These were lofty goals in 1989, and you've come a long way. Over these 16 years, you have made good progress in achieving your original goals. Your Leadership Initiative is a particularly fruitful way to keep on discovering and enhancing new educational methodologies in the future.

[Slide #15: Universe Slide]
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Today's new challenges for the science education community are many and they are important. As the poet William Butler Yeats said: "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." In terms of lighting that fire, there is still a universe of challenge and opportunity--of dreams. We must not lose that passion; the future depends on it.

Thank you.



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