Date: March 25, 1999
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All Undergraduates Should Be Required to Study
Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology
WASHINGTON -- To be better prepared for an increasingly technological society, all undergraduate college students in the United States -- regardless of their major areas of study -- should be required to take courses in science, mathematics, engineering, or technology, says a new report by a committee of the National Research Council. In addition, two- and four-year colleges and universities should revise their admission requirements to ensure that they are consistent with national and state science and mathematics education standards.
"Although the United States continues to lead the world in many scientific and technological advances, a majority of Americans are not prepared for the ever-expanding role that science and technology are playing in our daily lives," said committee chair Marye Anne Fox, chancellor, North Carolina State University, Raleigh. "Today's undergraduate students -- our future leaders, policy- makers, and teachers -- will need to make important decisions based on their understanding of basic scientific concepts. Universities must provide more opportunities for all students to get a solid foundation in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology."
Students enter college with varying levels of understanding and experience in science and mathematics, and most undergraduates do not study the subjects for more than one year, if it all. Many of the courses they take are focused on one discipline, such as biology or chemistry, and often do not give students an understanding of how disciplines are interconnected and their importance and relevance to everyday life or society.
The committee also noted that many students receive credits for scoring highly on advanced placement tests in science and mathematics and may not be required to take courses in these subjects at some colleges or universities. Although these students do well in placement tests, they may not be sufficiently prepared in these subjects. National and international comparisons of student performance in science and mathematics indicate that most U.S. students do not have a solid grounding in scientific and mathematical concepts and their relationship to other disciplines.
College and university officials, administrators, and faculty across departments should work together to develop courses and provide students with opportunities to explore these subjects as early in their studies as possible, the report says. Required courses should offer a firm grounding in basic concepts and illustrate connections among disciplines. Courses should be structured to include at least one laboratory experience and allow as many undergraduate students as possible to participate in research projects.
In addition, universities should continually review admissions requirements to ensure that they measure levels of knowledge and competency specified by national and state K-12 science and mathematics standards. Currently, many colleges and universities must rely on the results from standardized tests, which often do not emphasize the kinds of learning called for in national standards. As these standards are implemented, they will establish a baseline of knowledge that students should possess when they graduate from high school. In turn, colleges and universities may need to revise their standards for admission, and should inform prospective students of the preparation needed to succeed in college-level courses.
The committee made its recommendations after meeting with hundreds of representatives from academia and industry in symposia and forums in all regions of the United States. Participants included chief academic officers, department chairs, and faculty from two- and four-year colleges and universities, school administrators and teachers from K-12 institutions, and representatives from business and industry.
Strengthening training and professional development of current and new K-12 teachers of science and mathematics is critical for better student performance at all levels, the report says. Faculty in science, mathematics, engineering, and education departments will need to work together more closely to develop teacher preparation programs that offer scientific discovery both inside and outside the classroom. For example, master teachers can be hired to work with schools of education and relevant departments to improve teachers' education in content, methods, and assessment. In addition, universities should form partnerships with local school districts to provide needed resources to continue professional development for teachers.
Graduate and postdoctoral students also should be encouraged to improve their teaching skills, the committee said. Graduate programs should offer teacher training, and all faculty should have access to resources that enhance their teaching skills and expertise. Universities could provide more teaching experiences for graduates and postdoctoral students by making arrangements that would allow them to teach at community colleges and other types of undergraduate institutions.
To ensure that students are gaining an understanding of scientific concepts and natural processes, the committee said, colleges and universities should regularly evaluate the effectiveness of science, mathematics, engineering, and technology instruction. Institutions should begin comparing their undergraduate programs with those at other colleges and universities to identify successful practices. Specific proposals to create new courses or modify existing ones should include information about how those courses will be evaluated.
Universities also need to provide appropriate rewards and resources to improve undergraduate teaching and learning, the committee said. Rewarding and recognizing staff who offer high-quality introductory courses would reinforce the university's commitment to this goal. For example, a scholarly assessment of faculty participation in improving teaching and curriculum could be one of the criteria for promotion, tenure, and other personnel changes. Moreover, appropriate tools and resources must be supplied for faculty. Computer hardware and software should be updated and replaced on a regular basis. Universities could consider establishing teaching and learning centers to give advice and technical support to faculty for innovative course development in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology.
The study was funded by the Exxon Education Foundation. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, non-profit institution that provides independent advice on science and technology issues under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.
Read the full text ofTransforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology for free on the Web, as well as more than 1,800 other publications from the National Academies. Printed copies are available for purchase from the National Academy Press Web site or at the mailing address in the letterhead; tel. (202) 334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information at the letterhead address (contacts listed above).
NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education
Committee on Undergraduate Science Education
Marye Anne Fox* (chair)
Office of the Chancellor
North Carolina State University
Mary P. Colvard
Biology and Research Teacher
Cobleskill-Richmondville High School
Arthur B. Ellis
Meloche-Bascom Professor of Chemistry
Department of Chemistry
University of Wisconsin
James M. Gentile
Professor of Biology and Dean for the Natural Sciences
Ronald J. Henry
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs
Georgia State University
Harvey B. Keynes
Professor of Mathematics, Department of Mathematics, and
Director, Institute of Technology Center for Educational Programs
University of Minnesota
R. Heather Macdonald
Associate Professor of Geology
Department of Geology
College of William and Mary
Natural Science Department
Lawson State Community College
James W. Serum
Advanced Sensor Products
Director of Ethnography and Evaluation Research
Bureau of Sociological Research
University of Colorado
RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF
Jay B. Labov
(*) Member, National Academy of Sciences