Basic College Science Courses 'Filter Out' Most Students

August 09, 1996

Introductory college science and math courses serve largely as a filter, screening out all but the most promising students, and leaving the majority of college graduates -- including most prospective teachers -- with little understanding of how science works, according to a new study conducted for the National Science Foundation.

As a result, "despite the observation that America's basic research in science, mathematics, and engineering is world-class, its education is still not," according to the independent team of reviewers.

"America has produced a significant share of the world's great scientists while most of its population is virtually illiterate in science," the study concludes.

Because few teachers, particularly those at the elementary level, experience any collegiate science teaching that stresses the skills of inquiry and investigation, they simply never learn to use those methods in their teaching, the report states.

The findings in the report, called Shaping the Future: New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology, were made public at a recent conference in Washington D.C.

The nation's goal for undergraduate education, it states, should be that: All students have access to supportive, excellent undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering and technology, and all students learn these subjects by direct experience with the method and processes of inquiry.

Some institutions, including those that sent representatives to the conference, already are making the changes needed to help them meet that goal, officials noted, but most are not. This latest review of undergraduate programs continues NSF's efforts to improve the quality of collegiate science, math, engineering, and technology programs that began a decade ago with a study of that became known as the Neal Report.

The new report's findings were compiled over the course of a year by a nine-member committee of officials of two-year and four-year institutions, led by Melvin D. George, the president emeritus of St. Olaf College. The committee's main recommendation is that college science and math programs should be refocused in order to better educate the 80 percent of students who do not major in the scientific disciplines.

Luther S. Williams, the head of NSF's education and human resources directorate, noted that although there recently have been some promising indications that student performance in math and science at the K-12 level is improving, any sustained national effort to improve science and math teaching eventually must address the quality of teacher education at the undergraduate level.

"If you consider the implications for school systems as they attempt to implement standards-based education, then you immediately confront the problem of paucity of qualified personnel," he said.

National Science Foundation

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