August 24, 2007
National Science Board
Via e-mail: NSB_STEMaction@nsf.gov
Re: AIBS Comments on NSB/EHR-07-9
The American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) appreciates the opportunity to comment on the National Science Board's (NSB) draft report, "A National Action Plan for Addressing the Critical Needs of the U.S. Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Education System."
AIBS is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) scientific association dedicated to advancing biological research and education for the welfare of society. Founded in 1947 as a part of the National Academy of Sciences, AIBS became an independent, member-governed organization in the 1950s. Today, AIBS is sustained by a robust membership of some 5,000 biologists and 200 professional societies and scientific organizations; the combined individual membership of the latter exceeds 250,000. AIBS advances its mission through coalition activities in research, education, and public policy; publishing the peer-reviewed journal BioScience and the education website ActionBioscience.org; providing scientific peer review and advisory services to government agencies and other clients; convening meetings; and managing scientific programs.
Overall, the National Action Plan provides a response to many of the common science education concerns raised by AIBS individual and organizational members. Priority Recommendations A and B also appear to be reasonable and timely steps to improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) instruction and educational outcomes.
As articulated in the draft report, a plethora of government programs exist with a purpose of improving STEM education and instruction. The creation of a National Council on STEM Education to coordinate these efforts and promote wise investments of limited resources is a logical recommendation. However, AIBS encourages the NSB to carefully consider the authority and staffing levels for the National Council. Undoubtedly, the various current federal STEM programs serve unique stakeholders and may have been established to advance agency missions. Without clear authority, it is conceivable that the work of a non-federal council would be stymied by jurisdictional interests and a reluctance to participate in an effort lead by an external organization. The NSB is encouraged to consider seeking a Presidential Executive Order establishing the National Council, rather than legislation, as it would be more expeditious. Additionally, an Executive Order could more immediately and nimbly direct all federal programs to support and contribute to the efforts of the National Council on STEM Education. An Executive Order could also ensure appropriate jurisdiction, authority and agency participation in the proposed National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) Committee on STEM Education.
As outlined in the National Action Plan, the National Council on STEM Education will have an extensive workload. Given the scope of work, it appears that a more robust budget and more than two professional staff members will be required. Additionally, the model for long-term sustainability of the Council should be reconsidered. If the work of the National Council is effective and does indeed serve the national interest, it would seem that federal funding should be provided. Moreover, this would prevent the Council's work from being swayed by organizations with the capacity to fund the Council.
As biologists, earth scientists and social scientists are keenly aware, science standards are no guarantee that core scientific principles will be appropriately taught in science courses. Indeed, scientists have long sought to ensure that unifying scientific principles, such as evolution, are included in all state science standards and that scientists have appropriate classroom materials to provide students with an appropriate education. For instance, over the past several years, AIBS has worked with the National Association of Biology Teachers and the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study to provide teachers from across the nation with resources to improve their classroom instruction on evolution. Thus, the recommendation for horizontal integration of science standards is compelling.
AIBS is pleased that Priority Recommendation A recognizes the importance of informal science education institutions, such as natural history museums. In addition to these institutions, the National Council should also be aware of the myriad of informal and formal science education that takes place at other research centers, such as botanical gardens, field stations, and marine laboratories. Too often, tight budget conditions force these organizations to spread limited financial resources among research, education, and facilities. Thus, AIBS encourages the NSB, NSTC, and the proposed National Council to work with these institutions and funding organizations to ensure that vital elements of our national research and education infrastructure are able to access adequate and sustainable funding to support science education efforts.
AIBS is also pleased to see that informal education designed to improve the public understanding and appreciation of science is included in the draft report. Cultivating societal appreciation for science is essential to inspiring students to engage in science and to supporting the recruitment of STEM educators. These are among the reasons that AIBS has helped lead an effort to establish the Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS). The Coalition is a grassroots effort linking universities, scientific societies, science centers and museums, advocacy groups, media, educators, businesses, and industry in a peer network with a goal of greater public understanding of the nature of science and its value to society. This is an essential step in maintaining the nation's role in the global scientific enterprise.
Finally, Priority Recommendation B addresses the importance of recruiting and training highly qualified STEM educators. Absent from this recommendation, however, is recognition of the importance of professional, disciplinary societies. STEM societies have within their membership leaders in research and education, as well as current and future STEM educators, including graduate and undergraduate students. Many large disciplinary societies have professional staff members that work with practicing scientists and educators to develop timely and appropriate science education materials. For instance, AIBS staff and Board members have been working to bring together college biology faculty to identify ways to improve science instruction at the undergraduate level. The NSB should consider methods for including professional societies in the initiatives articulated in Priority Recommendation B. The NSB should also consider how National Science Foundation might provide new sources of funding to assist STEM professional organizations committed to contributing to the goals articulated in the National Action Plan.
Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of these recommendations. AIBS is committed to improving the quality of biological sciences education, instruction and the public appreciation for science, and looks forward to working with the NSB, NSTC, and any future National Council on STEM Education. If we may be of further assistance on this matter, please contact Dr. Robert Gropp, AIBS Director of Public Policy at 202-628-1500.
Douglas J. Futuyma, Ph.D.
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