N.S.F. Urged To Emphasize General Education Over Occupational

By Robert Rothman — April 08, 1987 4 min read
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WASHINGTON--The National Science Foundation should focus its precollegiate-education programs exclusively on improving science instruction for all students, rather than on training future scientists and engineers, a draft report by a private contractor has concluded.

“Science education should not just be occupational preparation, but should prepare students for life in the 21st century,’' said Marian S. Stearns, director of the social-sciences department at SRI International, a California-based research and consulting firm that is reviewing the N.S.F.'s education programs under a $1.6-million contract.

Noting that demographic trends indicate that the school-age population will become more ethnically diverse in the next few decades, Ms. Stearns added that improving general science education would also broaden the pool of prospective scientists.

“We’ll see a less homogeneous group and better science in the long run if all scientists don’t come from one socioeconomic group,’' she said.

Ms. Stearns, who spoke late last month at the annual convention of the National Science Teachers Association, said SRI’s final report will be released next month.

That report will describe about a dozen “opportunities’’ for improving science education that the N.S.F. could address, and some 50 specific initiatives the federal agency could undertake, she added.

Those steps could include strengthening support for secondary-school science teachers, improving informal science programs, and redesigning the curriculum, according to Mark St. John, leader of the SRI project’s working group on informal science education.

Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, the foundation’s assistant director for science and engineering education, declined to comment on the SRI report, noting that it had not yet been presented to him.

However, he said in an interview, the agency has a “dual mission.’'

“The N.S.F.'s interest is in pursuing programs that deal with future scientists and engineers as well as general public understanding of science,’' Mr. Shakhashiri said.

‘Terrible Need’

The SRI report, together with a separate study by the Research Triangle Institute on the foundation’s middle-school education programs, which is also expected to be released this spring, is likely to help frame the Congressional debate over the agency’s budget. As part of an effort to improve America’s economic competitiveness, President Reagan has pledged to double the foundation’s budget over the next five years.

For fiscal 1988, the Administration is proposing to increase spending for the N.S.F.'s science- and engineering-education directorate from $99 million to $115 million.

But the increase is earmarked for research and for programs training top students to become scientists and engineers, according to Bill G. Aldridge, executive director of the science teachers’ association. Funding levels for general science-education programs would be left unchanged, he said.

Like the SRI researchers, Mr. Aldridge urged the N.S.F. to shift its emphasis away from training future scientists and engineers.

“There is no present need--in fact, there is a surplus--of research scientists in the United States,’' Mr. Aldridge said at a press conference at the N.S.T.A. convention. “There is no current need for engineers, except for engineering faculty.’'

“The documented need has been for science education for the general public,’' he continued. “Yet the programs of the N.S.F. have not addressed that terrible need.’'

Mr. Aldridge has proposed doubling the science- and engineering-education directorate’s budget to $200 million, to provide funds for revamping the school science curriculum.

“We need a federal government that is willing to put up national programs,’' he said. “What’s there now is inappropriate.’'

“Ninety-three percent of kids never take another course in science, yet [current] courses are designed specifically for preparing kids for another course,’' he continued. “Why in the world would we do that?’'

Increased Mandates

In a related development, Mr. Aldridge and Leroy R. Lee, president of the science teachers’ group, announced their support for legislation--the “Challenger mission fulfillment act’'--expected to be introduced in the Congress by Representative Thomas C. Sawyer of Ohio, that would authorize $400 million a year over the next five years for an Education Department program training mathematics and science teachers.

The Reagan Administration has proposed scrapping that program, currently funded at $80 million, and several smaller teacher-training programs, and replacing them with a new $80-million program to train teachers from all disciplines.

That proposal would “gut’’ the program, Mr. Lee contended. “Funds already stretched to ridiculously low amounts would be spread so thin as to have no effect whatsoever,’' he said in remarks prepared for a hearing before the House Education and Labor subcommittee on elementary, secondary, and vocational education.

But Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, who spoke at the N.S.T.A. convention, said that improved science education will require efforts at the state and local levels, and he urged districts to raise their high-school science requirements to three years, up from the current average of 1.8 years.

“If we are serious about improving scientific literacy in this country, local school districts simply must teach more math and science, at all levels, elementary and secondary,’' Secretary Bennett said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 08, 1987 edition of Education Week as N.S.F. Urged To Emphasize General Education Over Occupational


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