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FYI Number 30: March 15, 2002

Legislation To Encourage Students to Pursue S&T Careers

Renewed attention is now being focused on a bill, introduced in both chambers last year, that would attempt to encourage more U.S. students to pursue careers in science, math, engineering, and technology (SMET) fields. A March 7 hearing addressed the "Technology Talent" Act and the related issue of undergraduate science and math instruction.

The bipartisan bill was introduced in the House as H.R. 3130 by Reps. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), John Larson (D-CT), Melissa Hart (R-PA), Mike Honda (D-CA), and Mark Udall (D-CO), and in the Senate as S. 1549 by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Christopher Bond (R-MO), Bill Frist (R-TN) and Pete Domenici (R-NM). It would authorize NSF to award competitive grants to institutions of higher education (including community colleges) for programs aimed at increasing the number of U.S. citizens and permanent residents obtaining degrees in SMET fields. Acceptable program objectives include increasing the number of women and underrepresented groups in these fields, assisting students not adequately prepared to pursue technical subjects in college, improving the quality of undergraduate teaching and student learning, exposing students to research opportunities and possible S&T careers, and providing financial incentives to students who pursue these subjects. Although this authorizing legislation has not yet been passed, $5 million was appropriated in FY 2002 for a pilot program at NSF (the authorizers sought $25 million), and the FY 2003 request includes $2 million for a continuation of the program.

To encourage undergraduate students to pursue a SMET education at any type of higher education institution, witnesses at the March 7 hearing of the House Science Subcommittee on Research emphasized the importance of research opportunities for the students and their teachers, resources for good quality laboratory equipment, and mentoring or other forms of support for students. Many of the witnesses received funding from - and praised - existing NSF programs targeted at improving undergraduate science and math education, and concern was expressed about the requested 4.8 percent decline in NS's Division of Undergraduate Education for FY 2003.

Carl Wieman of the University of Colorado-Boulder, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics, spoke of the difficulty of changing traditional instruction at large research universities, including the culture of large first- and second-year lecture courses designed to "weed out" students from science, math and engineering. With research valued more than undergraduate education at many universities, he said, faculty members have little incentive to change the entrenched system unless subjected to pressure from university and departmental administration.

Kathleen Howard of Swarthmore College said that undergraduate institution such as Swarthmore frequently produce more students that go on to earn PhDs in science than do many large research universities. She noted that Swarthmore has a lab-intensive science curriculum for majors and non-majors alike, a low student-faculty ratio with students actively involved in faculty research programs, and has turned around the traditional structure so first-year students learn science in small, seminar- style classes. Comprehensive institutions such as Towson and James Madison Universities have poor student-faculty ratios and do not have the resources for state-of-the-art lab equipment nor the manpower for significant faculty mentoring, said Daniel Wubah of James Madison. These institutions are experimenting with peer mentoring to help retain students in S&T fields. He also stressed the need for role models, bridging programs for students who are academically unprepared, and undergraduate involvement in research that is relevant to students' everyday lives.

Steven Johnson of Sinclair Community College pointed out that nearly half of all U.S. undergraduate students are enrolled in community colleges, and many future K-12 teachers get their core science and math courses at such schools. He urged greater federal support for undergraduate SMET education, particularly at community colleges, and broader dissemination of successful and effective programs. Narl Davidson described the Georgia Institute of Technology's varied programs to attract and retain students in technical fields, including collaboration with a local magnet high school and partnerships and transfer programs with undergraduate institutions, including those serving groups underrepresented in science and engineering fields. He said new and experimental ideas needed to be encouraged, for "there are no silver bullets."

Subcommittee Chairman Nick Smith (R-MI) asked whether industry salaries drew away undergraduates who might otherwise pursue graduate degrees in technical areas. Wieman responded that the country "is based on the free market system" and students had freedom of choice, but it would be helpful to make them aware that there are "interesting, fulfilling" careers for science graduates. Wubah urged that education be thought of as a "pathway" rather than a "pipeline," to which students could return at any time in their careers. Reps. Bob Etheridge (D-NC) and Mike Honda (D-CA) raised concerns that many high school students do not have access to advanced science and math to prepare them for college-level courses. The K-12 system is fragmented from the university system, which is fragmented from the community college system, Johnson declared.

Smith asked whether institutions followed the careers of students after they graduated and, in particular, kept track of how many foreign students returned to their home countries. Wieman noted that the American Institute of Physics tracks such statistics "fairly carefully:"about half the graduate students in physics are foreign, and while most stay in this country, other countries are "getting more sensitive" to this issue. The U.S. will need to "start growing our own scientists," Wubah stated.

The witnesses, in summing up, expressed support for NSF programs designed to enhance undergraduate SMET instruction, research opportunities, laboratory instrumentation, mentoring, and linkages with K-12 science and math education. Davidson added that universities rely on NSF as well for support of basic research, and "basic research involves the whole [scientific] community, including undergraduates."

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

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