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Fall 2003 Vol. 3 No. 3

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National Academy of Sciences

NAS President Bruce Alberts; photo by Richard Nowitz 'Science Education' Needs to Be Redefined at All Levels, and the Effort Will Depend on College Science Faculty

During my first two years as president of the National Academy of Sciences, half of my time was devoted to guiding the preparation of the first-ever National Science Education Standards for the United States. These standards, requested by the nation's 50 governors and published in early 1996, call for a revolutionary change in how we teach science in kindergarten through high school. New emphasis should be placed on teaching science as inquiry, so that all Americans can acquire some of the evidence-based problem-solving skills of scientists.

In the years that followed, however, it became obvious to me that any major change at the precollege level can only be sustained if we also redefine how science is taught in the first few years of college. In 1999 the National Academies published Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology, a report aimed at improving the introductory courses offered to all students -- both the majors in these subjects and non-majors. Then, last fall we released an important study of undergraduate college biology education titled Bio 2010: Transforming Undergraduate Education for Future Research Biologists. As these two reports make clear, our experts have repeatedly concluded that the current way of teaching science at most colleges and universities fails to prepare future scientists adequately, and it also leaves our other college graduates ill-prepared to make countless day-to-day decisions.

But reports such as these are not enough to change the nature of college science teaching. Many faculty are quite set in their ways, and they are comfortable teaching large lecture courses exactly as they were taught. Might direct person-to-person contact between educational innovators and their faculty peers responsible for the introductory biology courses at major research universities be a more effective way to kick-start change? As an experiment, the National Academies held a special institute for college science faculty this past summer at the University of Wisconsin. An article in this issue describes the enthusiastic response to this pilot institute. For the summer of 2004, the National Academies hope to expand this effort with institutes to address multiple teams of faculty in biology. We may also explore the possibility of similar institutes in other disciplines, including chemistry.

    National Academy of Sciences

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Copyright 2003 by the National Academy of Sciences