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Students sitting around a computer Screenshot of a MAC computer Image of scientists NSB Chair Schmitt - NSF Director Bloch
The National Science Board - A History in Highlights, 1950-2000
Table of Contents | Preface | Acknowledgements | Former Members | Exec Secretaries/Officers | Timeline

K-12 and Undergraduate Education

In 1981, Foundation leaders learned that the Reagan Administration would cut all funding to the agency's education programs, except fellowships for advanced students. The social sciences were also curtailed in the raft of federal programs that had to shrink to accommodate Reagan's tax cuts and huge defense build-up. The Reagan team singled out education, however, arguing it must be left to state and local governments. When the axe fell there was no appeal.

The Foundation must concern itself with the overall excellence of the scientific and engineering knowledge base and human resources for the long-range needs of the Nation. 1982 NSB Resolution The Directorate of Education was abolished in April 1982. Later that year, Director Slaughter, the Foundation's first African American director, left the post; he had accepted the appointment from President Carter in hopes of a very different climate. Slaughter's successor was Edward A. Knapp, a physicist from Los Alamos National Laboratory, who had better ties to George A. Keyworth II, the President's Science Advisor.

Despite the chilly climate, the Board decided that it would initiate a national policy report on ways to improve the sorry state of U.S. science and mathematics education. Members took strength from a paper by Philip M. Smith, who had served previous NSF directors and in the President's Office of Science and Technology Policy, urging the Board to exercise more of its national policy role than it had in the past. In June 1982, the Board resolved that the Foundation should play "a leadership role with respect to.other elements of the science and engineering enterprise, for example: evaluation of the health and achievements of the entire enterprise, and its human resource problems and needs."

Toward this end, the Board appointed a rare outside commission, co-chaired by William Coleman, Transportation Secretary in the Ford Administration, and Cecily Canaan Selby of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. The commission's two-volume report, Educating Americans for the 21st Century, built a strong case for science education and for the federal government's role within it. Published in 1983, the Coleman-Selby report received less public acclaim than another report that year, A Nation at Risk, which stoked public outrage over low U.S. educational achievement. But the Coleman-Selby report was aimed at educators and policymakers and helped to spark teaching reform and the evolution of national standards. The report also signaled the revival of NSF's education program. By 1990, NSF's education budget would pass $300 million.

During the mid-1980s, the Board addressed another deficiency in U.S. education: undergraduate courses in science, mathematics, and engineering. The Foundation had done much over the years to support students with clear promise of scientific careers. But what about undergraduates who were not headed for Ph.D.s ? A Board panel headed by Homer A. Neal, a physicist then at SUNY-Stony Brook, urged the Foundation to "bring its programming in the undergraduate education area into balance with its activities in the precollege and graduate areas as quickly as possible." Pedagogically, the panel recommended that improved undergraduate science, mathematics and engineering courses combine "hands on" research experience with formal instruction. In addition, the Foundation should also launch efforts "to improve public understanding of science and technology."

The Board adopted the Neal panel's report in March 1986. New undergraduate efforts helped move education at NSF into high gear. But they achieved more. Later testimonials counted NSF-funded improvements in the teaching of calculus as one of the most significant products ever to come out of NSF.

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