January 28, 2010
Ms. Bess Caughran
Committee on Science and Technology
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
Dear Ms Caughran:
Thank you for soliciting input about potential science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education provisions in the reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act.
The questions posed by the Committee in the "Survey on K-12 STEM Education" are extensive and suggest a real interest in maximizing the impact and effectiveness of federal investments in STEM education. A wise federal investment in STEM education has rarely been more important than it is today, as our nation works to reignite the spirit of innovation that offers the promise of solving society's most challenging problems. Given the current economic climate, it is prudent to ensure that federal investments can be used to leverage private funds and other government resources.
It is the case, appropriately, that federal science agencies make some investment in science education. Many federal agencies allocate some resources to the recruitment and training of the future STEM workforce. Various federal programs also support the development of K-12 classroom materials and pre-service or in-service training that help teachers translate for students the results of federal investments in scientific research. Often, it is through these exciting snapshots of science that students learn how scientists work or begin to consider a career in a STEM field.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that these educational materials and programs are an outgrowth of research supported by federal agencies. As the Committee is aware, it is difficult to know how much a science agency should invest in K-12 education programs, especially when there are limited resources available for research.
The National Science Foundation (NSF), for example, makes grants in support of fundamental research in all fields of science. This unique mission of funding all fields of basic science and science education is unique and presents opportunities for cross-disciplinary discovery that are less likely to occur without NSF research funding. Thus, it is arguably the case that NSF should be restrained in its investment in K-12 education programs. It might be that the best investment for NSF K-12 education resources is support of centers for innovative and pedagogically appropriate curriculum development. These centers could address the needs of the K-12 system as well as the needs of the university science education system. For instance, these centers could provide training and resources for current and future faculty who teach introductory science courses, modeling STEM teaching for future educators by illustrating the way STEM is practiced. These centers should be jointly funded with the Department of Education and/or other federal science agencies. Through these strategic investments, NSF could support the development of classroom materials and teachers while remaining true to its unique mission of funding fundamental research in all areas of science.
New federal models for support of K-12 science education materials development may offer a productive method for developing science educators with the skills and resources needed to teach students about the nature of science; rather than simply training students to memorize facts. Consider the federal investment in educational materials and resources about bioenergy, or some other issue which falls within the jurisdiction of multiple federal agencies. It is conceivable that several federal agencies are funding initiatives to develop these resources. In some cases, the intent may be to provide resources to K-12 educators. These materials might best be developed through a collaborative effort between the Department of Energy, US Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of the Interior, and the National Science Foundation. The Department of Education might be charged with coordinating this kind of effort, as it offers, among other things, access to experts in curriculum development, state-of-the-art instructional models, and mechanisms to deliver new programs to educators through state and local education authorities.
In addition to reviewing the role of science agencies in K-12 STEM education, the Committee should ensure that science agencies are properly positioned to help support the needs of college and university science educators. As a growing list of reports chronicle, there is a need to reinvent how we teach science - not only to K-12 students, but also to undergraduate students. It is important to keep in mind that many of today's undergraduate students will become teachers.
In July 2009, NSF and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) convened a conference entitled Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A View for the 21st Century. At this meeting, various science education stakeholders identified key goals that could drive reform of undergraduate biology education. These included exposing all students to authentic research experiences, with real scientific methods, data, and tools. Such an approach has been shown to increase student understanding of and interest in science (Seymour et al, 2004, Science Education 88:493-534; Lopatto, 2007, CBE-Life Sciences Education 6:297-306). Because science agencies have established relationships with scientists, this is the kind of effort that federal science programs can effectively support. These efforts would produce greater results if coordinated and linked to teacher preparation programs. Science agencies should collaborate with the Department of Education, scientific and professional societies, and other appropriate organizations toward this and other goals articulated during the Vision and Change conference.
Biology majors expect to be prepared for the science careers of the 21st century. For this to happen, new educational models must be implemented. Teaching the way we did 100 years ago no longer meets the needs of students, scientists, or society. To be scientifically literate members of society or future scientists, students must learn by engaging with real-world problems in an interdisciplinary manner. A recent report from the National Academies entitled "A New Biology for the 21st Century" describes the societal value of this integrated and interdisciplinary approach and states that: "Development and implementation of genuinely interdisciplinary undergraduate courses and curricula will both prepare students for careers as New Biology researchers and educate a new generation of science teachers well versed in New Biology approaches."
A strategic and wise investment of federal resources must be informed by a thoughtful and deliberate process. The Committee should consider including in the reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act a requirement that the President, through the Office of Science and Technology Policy, President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, and the Domestic Policy Council, conduct a government-wide review of federal investments in STEM education. These offices would convene appropriate officials from federal agencies to review current programs and practices, identify opportunities for interagency collaboration, and assess future needs and opportunities. Moreover, Congress could direct the White House to include in this review an appropriate array of non-governmental stakeholders. This effort could provide answers to the questions included in the Committee's Survey on K-12 STEM Education. As with other Congressionally-directed activities, the Administration could report to Congress on a regular basis with recommendations for a coordinated federal investment in K-12 STEM education.
Thank you for the opportunity to provide input to the Committee. If the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS) can be of assistance to you on this or any other matter, please do not hesitate to contact AIBS director of public policy Dr. Robert Gropp at 202-628-1500.
Richard T. O'Grady, Ph.D.