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PCAST Remedy for Undergraduate Science Is a Tall Order

8 February 2012 3:45 pm
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White House Photo by Pete Souza

A science education. President Obama hears from student science fair winners at a White House event.

A new report from a presidential panel offers a clear and seemingly simple recipe for improving U.S. undergraduate science, engineering, and math education and attracting more students into those fields: make the introductory courses more interesting by replacing lectures with active learning, give entering students the math skills they will need to take on these courses, and provide more routes into science and engineering for non-traditional students.

But education leaders caution that those recommendations, by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), are deceptively challenging and will require overcoming steep obstacles at the thousands of U.S. colleges and universities that educate the next generation of workers.

"Changing the academic culture is hard, and I'm not going to pretend that we're assured of success. We're not," says Hunter Rawlings, former president of Cornell University and now head of the Association of American Universities, a group of 61 research-intensive schools that have recently pledged to improve the first 2 years of instruction on their campuses. Yesterday, Rawlings participated in a panel discussion, moderated by Carl Wieman, director for science at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, on the newly released report.

Education reformers say one of their biggest hurdles is an academic culture that prizes research over teaching and that traditionally has been geared more toward weeding out rather than attracting students into majoring in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields. In addition, the current system of U.S. higher education, including community colleges and 4-year institutions as well as those offering graduate degrees in STEM fields, is so vast that it is inherently resistant to change. Although reformers can point to piecemeal efforts that have moved the needle at particular schools, those programs typically owe their success to a deep and sustained commitment by a single prominent scientist or campus leader. Scaling up those achievements, however, has proven much more difficult.

The authors of the PCAST report, entitled Engage to Excel, claim that their suggestions, if adopted, will lead to "1 million additional college graduates with STEM degrees." Fewer than 40% of students who begin college planning to major in a STEM field actually earn a STEM degree, the report notes, and simply boosting that retention rate to 50% would get the country three-quarters to the goal. Another important step, says the report, is getting all students ready for STEM coursework. Some 60% of freshmen don't have the minimum math skills needed to study science and engineering at the college level, it notes.

Jo Handelsman, a Yale University biologist and co-chair of the PCAST working group that produced the report, says it calls for "a national experiment" on the best way to eliminate remedial math courses and bring more students up to college standards. That experiment is needed, she says, because "we don't know what will make a difference." In line with that recommendation, the Obama Administration has proposed spending $60 million on research exploring "evidence-based" approaches to improving math instruction from elementary school through college. The money, part of the president's 2013 budget request that will be submitted to Congress on Monday, would be divided equally between the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation. NSF's Joan Ferrini-Mundy, head of the agency's education directorate, said the program, if funded, would build upon existing NSF research activities.

Better math preparation is vital to improving undergraduate science, agrees panelist Mary Ann Rankin, founder of a science teacher training program at the University of Texas and now head of the National Math and Science Initiative, which is seeking to replicate that program nationally. But the link baffles educators, she admits. "It's not clear why you need math in freshman biology, but it's true," says Rankin. "The data show that if you're not ready to take calculus, you never seem to catch up. The correlation is there, but we don't understand why."

In contrast, Rankin and others say, the relationship between poor instruction and poor student learning is easy to understand. "Most faculty members aren't taught how to teach," she says. "Nor are they taught how students learn. As a result, they are very uncomfortable using an inquiry approach, in which they are a guide for students who take responsibility for their own learning."

Improving undergraduate science won't necessarily lead to more Nobel Prizes for the United States. The 1-million target doesn't distinguish between associate and bachelor's degrees, for example, nor does it mean that every student will become part of what is generally defined as the nation's scientific workforceas a faculty member, for example, or working in a corporate research lab or federal research facility. James Gates, a physicist at the University of Maryland, College Park, and the report's other co-chair, says that it's just as important to help students at 2-year colleges and those seeking technical training as it is to address the challenges at a large research university like his. Some 30% of the current U.S. scientific workforce has attended community college, he notes, a percentage that is expected to rise steadily over the next decade.

The recommendations in the report would cost roughly $75 million a year for 5 years to implement, according to its authors. Gates and Handelsman said that they expect the federal government would foot only a portion of the tab, with the rest coming from companies and private foundations interested in improving STEM education. Yesterday, as part of a science fair he hosted at the White House, President Barack Obama announced that the private sector has committed another $22 million to the administration's campaign, called Educate to Innovate, to improve STEM teaching.

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