Staying the Science Course

Academics tell lawmakers that quality of undergraduate teaching is crucial to the pipeline.
March 16, 2006

If American colleges are to produce more science majors and, in turn, better science teachers, the focus should be on the quality of undergraduate instruction, several academics told a Congressional panel Wednesday.

Daniel L. Goroff, vice president and dean of faculty at Harvey Mudd College, said at a hearing of the House Committee on Science's research subcommittee that “the National Science Foundation budget for undergraduate education has been slashed in recent years.” He highlighted the need for new equipment so students can do real research and have the experience of publishing in peer reviewed journals. “Trying to promote competitiveness without paying careful attention to undergraduate education is like promoting science and engineering without paying attention to math.” Along with several other witnesses, Goroff was adamant that the proposed doubling of the NSF budget over a decade should make room for undergraduate education initiatives. (The NSF budget supports both research and education programs, but for many years supporters of the education division have worried about their efforts losing out to the research division.)

Carl Wieman, a Nobel laureate and physics professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said that “undergraduate science education is based on an obsolete model.” Wieman, who has been a strong proponent of  “ peer instruction," a model that has science students discuss concepts with one another in a class, said, perhaps counterintuitively, that “until we fix undergraduate education, we can’t fix K-12.” He said that science majors are not being created in college. Rather, very determined science students are surviving in spite of shabby teaching, he said.

Rep. Bob Inglis, a South Carolina Republican, said that, had he been “taught by someone who really loved science, perhaps I would have caught the science bug…as it was, my most memorable teachers were word teachers,” he said. Instead, he “fell into the dark side of the law.”

Wieman added that K-12 science teachers must understand the subject matter, and to do that, there must be more science majors, which means there must be more students turned on to science as undergraduates. “We have to change higher education first,” he said.

John Burris, president of Beloit College, a liberal arts college in Wisconsin, said that the NSF needs to be heavily involved in producing the next generation of science teachers, and that the job shouldn’t be left to the Education Department. “I want our future teachers first and foremost to be knowledgeable about how science is done,” said Burris, a former biology professor and former director of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. “I think scientists are the best people to [train them].”

Burris added that Beloit retains most of its science, technology, engineering and math -- STEM -- students in those fields because the college is committed to small classes, tenured teachers, and cutting edge equipment. “Hands-on science is expensive,” he said, but that’s the price to be paid for high quality science instruction, not “classes of 400 students, with antiquated equipment …with instructors who see their role as to discourage rather than encourage science majors.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican, said that “we need to bring down the cost of getting a science degree, so students don’t end up with mountains of debt, and then are not hired by some law firm where they can pay that debt … they’re almost indentured servants.” He added that foreign students who get sponsored by their government walk away with no debt. Rohrbacher advocated legislation that would give debt relief for students who work for the government after graduation. “We pay gym teachers and science teachers and basket weaving teachers the same,” he said, adding that he didn’t mean to degrade the basket weaving community.

Elaine Seymour, author of Talking About Leaving: Why Undergraduates Leave the Sciences, said that the underlying problem is “a historical decline in the perceived value of teaching” as opposed to research. In a study she and a colleague published in 1997, Seymour reported that 20 percent of the STEM students in her sample reported seriously considering science or math teaching as a career as underclassmen. That dropped to 7 percent among those students who persisted in STEM fields to senior year.

She said a major factor in the decline was students’ awareness that their professors “defined teaching ambitions as ‘deviant,’” she said. “We have a reward structure for tenure that emphasizes research.” Seymour noted that, in large universities, teaching assistants are often responsible for any interactive learning students might get, and “STEM TA's seem the least likely to receive training.”

Margaret Collins, assistant dean of science, business and computer technology at Moraine Valley Community College, outside Chicago, said that community colleges have certain unique needs for STEM students, including the need tp provide remedial tutoring. Collins added that collaborations with elementary and secondary schools are also important so that teachers understand what college-bound students should know. Under the president's current budget request, the NSF Math and Science Partnership program, which matches colleges with schools, is slated to be cut by 27 percent.

After the hearing, Wieman added that technology has made innovative teaching practical. In peer instruction, for example, student often use remote controls to respond in class to conceptual multiple choice questions so the instructor can get instant feedback on the level of understanding. Still, Wieman also said that the incentive structure of higher ed has to change if progressive teaching techniques are to become widespread. “There’s no real incentive to make change other than altruism,” he said. “Change by altruism alone is slow.” He said that some people do get grants to institute new teaching methods, but that it’s “like trying to change stream flow by scooping out one or two buckets of water.”

Seymour said that in her research about why students abandon science, there were some “pretty dismal stories,” especially among minority students. She said that many minority students get great encouragement from their home communities to study science, but they enter college “over-confident and under-prepared,” she said. “It’s a devastating experience from which they tend not to recover.”

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