Already this year, the House Science and Technology Committee's Subcommittee
on Research and Science Education has examined many aspects of U.S.
science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education,
with more hearings to come. Among the topics explored so far, two recent
hearings addressed the role of federal R&D mission agencies in K-12
education, while an earlier hearing focused on a legislative proposal
to improve the science laboratory experience for high school students.
Education experts from around the country described their interactions
with federal mission agencies, including DOE, NASA, NOAA, NIST, EPA,
NIH, and FDA, at a May 15 hearing. They discussed the effectiveness
and appropriateness of resources and assistance provided by those agencies.
The witnesses recounted with enthusiasm many formal and informal educational
collaborations with mission agencies, such as Saturday morning science
sessions, ask-a-scientist online discussions, teacher summer institutes,
films, workshops, and family nights. However, they pointed out that
while the mission agencies have a substantial amount of content knowledge,
they do not have expertise in pedagogy, classroom practice, curriculum
materials, or teacher professional development. It is NSF, remarked
National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) President Linda Froschauer,
that supports innovative instructional approaches, conducts research,
requires rigorous evaluations, and brings the research and science education
communities together to improve curriculum and instruction. The "two
major assets" that other R&D agencies can bring to K-12 education
are their STEM workforce and their facilities, said Michael Lach, Director
of Mathematics and Science for the Chicago Public Schools. He added
that agency-developed curricula and lessons plans were frequently not
helpful, especially if they were not easily adaptable to local concerns
and state standards. The testimony of George Nelson, former astronaut
and Director of STEM Education at Western Washington University, echoed
this comment: "There is a huge inventory of poorly designed and
under-evaluated mission-related curricula [that is] rarely used in classrooms
and with no natural home in a coherent standards-based curriculum."
Horizon Research President Iris Weiss noted that such materials "may
add to the incoherence" of the educational system. "Some teachers
can pull together...materials and organize them into a coherent curriculum,"
she said, but most "have neither the time nor the capacity,"
and critical prerequisites may be neglected. She testified that more
stringent criteria should exist for agency education programs: Do they
target priority areas for K-12 education? Do they have the capacity
to address those needs effectively and to evaluate the impacts? Do their
efforts reach a large number of teachers or students? The witnesses
suggested that the most appropriate roles for federal mission agencies
might be workforce preparation in the form of undergraduate, graduate
and postdoctoral support and experiences; the provision of data to be
used in curriculum development; and opportunities for teachers, students
and parents to be exposed to scientists and the conduct of science in
Questioned about the recent report of the American Competitiveness
Council (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2007/056.html),
which found that few federal education programs have been rigorously
evaluated, Weiss agreed,"there is no question we need to be doing
a more rigorous job of evaluating programs." However, she noted
that some types of evaluation, such as randomized controlled trials,
might sound good in theory but were not necessarily practical in the
real world of the classroom.
At a follow-up hearing on June 6, representatives of several federal
R&D agencies (NSF, NASA, DOE, and NIH) described their K-12 education
programs. Each agency had participated in development of the American
Competitiveness Council (ACC) report, and the witnesses reported that
the effort had caused their agencies to review, reinvigorate, and strengthen
evaluation methodologies and coordination with other agencies. The ACC
report also called for reconstitution of a subcommittee of the inter-agency
National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) to address STEM education
and workforce issues. When questioned about how the NSTC subcommittee
would operate and what its role would be, Cora Marrett, Assistant Director
for Education and Human Resources at NSF, said it was too early to know
because its charter was still being developed, but one task would be
to maintain a catalogue of federal STEM education programs. She also
stressed the "imperative for enhanced STEM education research"
to build a knowledge base of what programs work, under what conditions,
for what populations, and how they can be effectively scaled up. Rep.
Jerry McNerney (D-CA), a mathematician and chair of the hearing, commented
that evaluating the effectiveness of such programs was "the most
difficult" challenge, and Subcommittee Ranking Member Rep. Vern
Ehlers (R-MI) declared that "Congress must authorize adequate evaluation
capacity" for federal STEM education programs. They indicated that
they would be looking to the NSTC subcommittee to track, coordinate,
prioritize, and review K-12 STEM education programs across the government,
and sought assurances that the agency representatives to this subcommittee
would have sufficient stature within their agencies.
On March 8, the Research and Science Education Subcommittee heard testimony
on the state of science laboratories in the nation's high schools. Rep.
Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX) testified about his "Partnerships for Access
to Laboratory Science" or "PALS" bill (H.R. 524). The
legislation would "create a pilot program at NSF to study the best
ways to train teachers in lab instruction; the best way to set up, staff,
and manage labs; and ensure that labs have the best possible equipment,
materials, and supplies," testified NSTA President Froschauer.
Calling laboratory science "a high-priced luxury" that far
too many public high schools cannot afford, she cited statistics from
a 1995 General Accounting Office report that 42 percent of schools surveyed
nationally reported they were "not well at all" equipped for
laboratory science, with even larger percentages of low income schools
not well equipped.
While it would seem silly "to play a sport without actually practicing,
we have created a similar scenario in our high school science classrooms,"
said Arthur Eisenkraft, Director of the Center of Science and Math in
Context at the University of Massachusetts, in his prepared statement.
Eisenkraft was a member of a National Research Council panel that issued
a report in 2005 on high school laboratory experiences. The panel found,
he said, that most students have poor quality experiences in the science
laboratory, and the effectiveness of science labs is hard to determine
because the experiences - and even the definitions of a laboratory experience
- vary so greatly. In its report, the panel proposed a definition, and
a set of goals, for an appropriate high school laboratory experience.
The 254-page report can be accessed and purchased from the National
Academies Press (go to http://www.nap.edu
and search on "America's Lab Report"). Jerry Mundell, Adjunct
Professor and General Chemistry Laboratory Manager at Cleveland State
University, remarked that typical high school lab experiences do not
motivate students, leading to incoming college freshman who often lack
the skills and interest to "properly engage in a college chemistry
course." He advocated better training and professional development
for high school science teachers.
Provisions of H.R. 524, and its counterpart in the Senate, have been
incorporated into broader competitiveness bills that have passed the
House and Senate and are now due for reconciliation in conference (see