APS News

Science for All Students

By Laurie Fathe

This summer, two major reports were released which address the current state of undergraduate science and math education, and the need for changes in the current approach. These reports, From Analysis to Action from the National Research Council, and Shaping the Future from the National Science Foundation, provide a contextual perspective for this dialog on science and math education, and present concrete recommendations for addressing the problems they document. The reports have somewhat different perspectives and tones, with the NRC report being more succinct and providing a "how-to" manual, while the NSF report includes more detailed and harsher discussion of the existing situation. But overall they share many common themes and recommendations.

There is little in the content of these reports to surprise the informed and aware educator. The reports praise the success of education for future scientists, and point to the strong motivation found in students working closely with faculty on research. The reports similarly decry the state of science and math education for everyone else, from other science students to pre-service teachers to humanities students. The NRC report opens with a list of problems: undergraduates do not receive enough instruction in science and math; many classes stress "coverage" without engaging the students in the process of science; drop-out rates from science majors are alarmingly high; students rarely get to share in the excitement of investigation that engages the faculty; future teachers are not encouraged in science and math programs; science graduates are not appropriately prepared to succeed in the workplace.

But where the NRC report talks in broad terms, the NSF report documents the current situation in startlingly frank terms. The exclusionary and elitist atmosphere of science classes, particularly physical science classes, is described in grisly detail, as is the arrogant and disrespectful approach of some faculty. And if anecdotal evidence is not sufficient to convince faculty and institutions that changes are needed, the NSF report cites Elaine Seymore and Nancy Hewitt's three-year study "Talking about Leaving" which found that 90 percent of students transferring out of math and science majors and 75 percent who persisted in those majors described the quality of the teaching they experienced as poor. Undergraduates seeking a positive experience in science based on discovery in a supportive environment are likely to be disappointed by the current educational system and its faculty.

But faculty cannot be held solely responsible for the climate of science classrooms, or the low priority placed on teaching and educational scholarship. While national leaders encourage faculty to focus more on education, to provide a high quality discovery-based classroom experience for all their students, to develop innovative and relevant curricula, and to incorporate more student-centered learning techniques into their instruction, faculty respond with the realities of their situation. And the reality is that at most colleges and universities, educational innovation and scholarship are ignored or only minimally acknowledged, and successful teaching is sometimes seen as a negative rather than a positive in a faculty record; research and research publication are the accepted measures of success. Bruce Alberts, President of the National Academy of Sciences, is quoted on the irony of having the most prestigious positions at many institution of higher education be those with no teaching responsibilities.

The NRC report, in addressing this sad state of affairs, charitably states "Considerable uncertainty surrounds the vital matter of what institutional value is attached to the different kinds of professional work. Faced with this uncertainty, faculty members are apt to stress the one activity for which relatively clear objectives and rewards exist: research that results in peer-reviewed publications. Yet the distortions that result from a single-minded attention to research divorced from teaching are evident: buy out of teaching time in favor of research; a haunting sensation that time spent preparing a lecture is time taken away from research; admonitions of elders to forget about teaching until one has tenure; funds available for travel to research meetings but not to develop teaching skills, and a virtual absence in many institutions of informed discussion about what makes for good teaching." Any faculty member who has ever felt the pressure to put students second will echo these sentiments. The recommendation that follows stresses that "Universities need to be more inclusive in their definition of what constitutes scholarship and teaching... 'scholarship' can and should encompass a much broader range of activities than those now defined as essential for academic success."

It will not be trivial to implement even the major recommendations of these reports: "All students should have access to supportive, excellent programs in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology, and all students should acquire literacy in these subjects by direct experience with the methods and process of inquiry"; "Departments and programs should define their missions and establish explicit goals ... and be evaluated against those goals by fair assessments that are as rigorous as those applied for research"; and "Institutions must promote a new balance and a new linkage between teaching and research, so that teaching is enlivened by investigation and research is defined more broadly, and so that faculty may be rewarded for educational scholarship as well as for other kinds of scholarship."

Bringing about the level of cultural change suggested here will take a coordinated effort between all segments of the scientific and educational community; funding agencies, professional societies, and the government have a major role in this process. These players can provide strong and visible leadership in the area of undergraduate science and math education and insure that they implement appropriate rewards for this critical work. The reports insist that educational activities must be funded at levels commensurate with research, and that other forms of recognition also parallel those in research. Professional societies are urged to "act as powerful forces for change within the academic community" since faculty often feel stronger ties to their discipline than to their local institutions. The reports fall short of challenging the National Academy to select new fellows based on educational achievement, or suggesting that there be Presidential Young Educator awards for promising new teaching faculty, or proposing grants to allow faculty to buy out of research so that they may concentrate on their teaching, but these changes would be within the scope and the spirit of the recommendations.

The overriding question is whether or not there is sufficient will to accomplish the monumental task set forth by these reports. One can argue that because colleges and universities rely on the influx of research dollars, this is what they reward, and if funding for educational activities were equivalent to that for research then there would be a change in what these institutions reward. The money is indeed a necessary condition for change, but not sufficient. There must be a true cultural shift in higher education, and in the culture as a whole, to valuing teaching. Only then can we hope to achieve the goals so clearly set before us.

Laurie Fathe is project manager for the, Los Angeles Collaborative for Teacher Excellence and on the physics faculty of Occidental College in Los Angeles, California and is a former APS Congressional Fellow.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin