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Summer 2005 Vol. 5 No. 2

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Bruce Alberts: The Education President

Bruce Alberts with a young student during visit to a lab school at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., photo by Carol Lollis As Bruce Alberts stepped down on July 1 one of the most accomplished and distinguished presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, he was singularly focused on education -- specifically, teaching students about real science. He has been brewing an idea for a new science course that he would like to teach to his graduate students at the University of California, San Francisco, the approach for which is partly inspired by the three years he spent in graduate school charging straight into an experimental dead-end. First, Alberts says, he would toss out the traditional classroom lectures and instead hand students a small stack of carefully selected scientific articles. Then he would have them argue among themselves which papers are outstanding and, most importantly, which are not. "We always talk about good papers, but we never talk about the substantial amount of mediocre work that's done," Alberts says.

Alberts wants to get students and scientists talking about what he considers the critical issue in a scientific career: how a scientist learns where to spend limited time, money, and energy in the most effective way. "I think the right type of course could do a lot to help future scientists develop the kind of taste and judgment they need to really be successful," he says. Good scientists usually acquire this research acumen by osmosis or "trial and error," Alberts says. "In my case, it was a lot of error."

Nearly 30 years after his graduate school stumbling blocks, Alberts came to Washington, D.C., to be an "education president" of the Academy. His impressive list of achievements and accolades -- including eight foreign academy memberships, 14 honorary degrees, and recognition ranging from the San Francisco Exploratorium to the National Academy of Education -- reflects his abiding interest in science research and policy as well as basic science education. During his 12-year tenure, he has made immense strides in bringing science education reform to the classroom.

Elected NAS president in 1993, Bruce Alberts immediately began attending to the National Science Education Standards -- a project to develop the first-ever set of science educational standards for kindergarten through high school -- helping to shape and move the project forward. In 1996, the Research Council released the long-awaited report, a 250-page guide containing recommendations on the content of science classes and on science teaching techniques. The report emphasizes logic and hands-on problem solving, collaborative group work, and inquiry-based science. More than 250,000 copies have been distributed across the nation, and the voluntary standards have now been adopted to some extent in almost every state.

Under Alberts' leadership, the National Academies helped usher in other science education initiatives. In 1995, the Academies established a Center for Science, Mathematics, and Engineering Education, later merged with the Board on Testing and Assessment to form the Center for Education, which provided a locus for education activities. The National Academies tripled their education reports, producing more than 190 publications on some aspect of education from kindergarten through graduate school, and recently helped establish Strategic Education Research Partnership (SERP), a nonprofit agency that aims to create collaborative networks of teachers and education researchers to decipher what works best in our nation's schools.

Farewell celebration for Bruce Alberts, photo by Mark FinkenstaedtNow that his second and final six-year term as NAS president has ended, Alberts will serve the next four years as co-chair of the InterAcademy Council, alongside Yongxiang Lu, president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. The InterAcademy Council brings together the world's science academies to provide advice to international bodies, such as the United Nations and the World Bank. Alberts is also returning to teaching at UCSF, where he hopes to explore new methods of instruction, such as interactive minicourses between academic terms. He also plans to help UCSF's young faculty and postdoctoral fellows become more effective teachers and researchers themselves.

Looking back, Alberts can see the influences of his own education and teaching experiences on his philosophies of science education. He saw the power that a good textbook can hold, and he experienced the consequences of learning too late the value of forming good scientific questions.

Alberts realizes that people are driven strongly by the pleasures of solving problems and feeling competent, not by external rewards, and these motivations hold for brilliant future scientists as well as struggling students. "I think that our education process should stress enabling every kid to realize in middle school that she or he is good at something, and that their job in life is to find out what they're really good at," he says. The importance of early science classes goes beyond the actual science, Alberts says. "You're trying to teach a much more basic skill -- a strategy for dealing with life, basically. You're not trying to teach all students to be research scientists. You're trying to teach them how to deal with any problem they're going to encounter in a scientific way."

Adapted from a profile written by Regina Nuzzo and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on June 28, 2005.

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Copyright 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences