Pan-Organizational Summit on the U.S. Science Engineering Workforce
November 11-12, 2002
Position of the Board of Directors of
Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society
W. Frank Gilmore, President
Chancellor, Montana Tech, The University of Montana
Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society, is the international honor society of research scientists and engineers. Founded in 1886, Sigma Xi is a non-profit membership society of nearly 75,000 scientists and engineers who were elected to the Society because of their research achievements or potential. The Society has more than 500 chapters at universities and colleges, government laboratories and industry research centers. In addition to publishing the award-winning magazine, American Scientist, Sigma Xi bestows more than 600 grants annually to promising young researchers, holds forums on critical issues at the intersection of science and society, and sponsors a variety of programs supporting excellence in science and engineering, science education, science policy and the public understanding of science.
Many of the recommendations in this position paper have been abstracted from Sigma Xi documents1, while others represent a synthesis of Sigma Xi positions and recommendations from other governmental and non-governmental organizations. Taken together, these documents produced by the full range of stakeholders, present a compelling message. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (or STEM) education in the United State needs to be thoroughly reformed from elementary school through graduate school if we are to meet this country's workforce needs. Moreover, these reforms must center on improving STEM teaching, dramatically improving access to STEM education for all young people and providing understandable science information for all Americans.
Recently, there have been many promising initiatives designed to respond to concerns about STEM education2. However, we have seen many other programs of similar promise come and go over the past 20 years. None of these efforts has had a system-wide effect. Student performance in STEM fields has continued to decline, as has interest in STEM careers. From this experience it is clear that sustained restructuring of both K-12 and college level instruction is necessary.
Scientists and engineers must play a central role in this reform process. We know that many of the best researchers are also excellent and committed undergraduate teachers, and that there are colleges and universities that encourage and support high quality teaching among their STEM faculty. Balance between education and research must be the standard career expectation for STEM faculty. Over the years, the very forces that have made research universities so successful have drawn vital energy away from teaching. Yet, excellence in both teaching and research is clearly compatible and they are often mutually supportive activities. Our goal must be to develop new approaches to STEM education that build on the remarkable success of our research programs. Undergraduate STEM instruction is potentially the most effective leverage point for improvement in the quality of education in STEM fields at all levels. Many in the workforce, including K-12 teachers, are formally exposed to STEM courses for the last time in their undergraduate coursework and research universities are the largest producers of STEM-trained college graduates. Those who teach at the undergraduate level have rich academic backgrounds and close ties with current research. They understand modern science, mathematics and engineering. Effective teaching by STEM faculty can meet the needs of students preparing for careers in non-scientific fields as well as those students who are preparing for graduate and professional programs in STEM fields. For endeavors of such significance, the magnitude of the task cannot be an excuse for inaction.
Fortunately, current circumstances present a variety of opportunities to improve STEM education at all levels. Over the last decades, we have gathered a great deal of valuable information about what works in math and science education. Enormous demographic changes anticipated over the next decade will dramatically alter the ranks of teachers and university faculties. The substantial replacement of the workforce presents a unique opportunity to inject new energy into mathematics and science teaching in the form of new recruitment, training and supportive structures that can strengthen teaching at all levels.
- Improving K-12 Science Education
In their 2000 report Before It's Too Late, the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century identified three major goals and associated strategies for bringing about the changes that are necessary. Sigma Xi recommends the approach taken in Before It's Too Late and endorses the three principal goals of their program.
- To establish an ongoing system to improve the quality of mathematics and science teaching in grades K-12
- To increase significantly the number of mathematics and science teachers and improve the quality of their preparation
- To improve the working environment and make the teaching profession more attractive to K-12 mathematics and science teachers. STEM-trained teachers have ample options elsewhere in the labor force. Quite simply, to attract and retain these teachers the teaching environment needs to be made more appealing.
In the short-term, programs are urgently needed to address the pressing current needs created by shortages in mathematics and science teachers.
- Science-trained individuals should be actively recruited for teaching careers. This recruitment effort should be supported with a well-crafted media campaign to attract teachers and a range of incentive-based strategies like teaching fellowships and scholarship programs.
- The link between research and education training should be flexible and fluid. New graduates and graduate students with an interest in teaching should be able to participate in relatively short-term commitments to teach through programs like Teach for America (TFA)3 that place college graduates with content-rich training in underserved schools. Many TFA corps members make a long-term commitment to teaching. Those who do not typically return to graduate or professional careers with a deeper appreciation for issues in education.
- These programs must be supported through government and industry funding, but STEM departments must also endorse them so that their graduates consider teaching as a genuinely rewarding career option. Possible mechanisms for targeted support include scholarship and fellowship programs for new graduates.
- Similarly, programs that ease the transition from mid-career and post-retirement years to teaching, like the Army's Troops -to -Teachers Program4 , should be expanded to recruit seasoned scientists and engineers to work in classrooms and provide professional training and support. These programs offer an excellent opportunity for businesses and industries to fund short-term awards for employees and new retirees to enter the teaching field.
- Action must be taken to support and encourage teachers in order to stem their loss to other professions. Teachers must be given the time they need within the school day to keep up with new developments in their fields, teaching aids and materials. They must have the opportunity to collect the feedback necessary to reflect on their teaching. Teachers must receive the respect they deserve and be rewarded accordingly, including salaries that appropriately value science and mathematics training.
- Undergraduate Education
Sigma Xi fully endorses the 10 recommendations contained in the Boyer Commission Report. The following recommendations emphasize points made by in the Boyer Commission and in other reports5:
- The reward system for excellence in undergraduate teaching should be commensurate with reward systems for excellence in other STEM faculty activities, including research.
- Funding sources should be arranged so that tenure-track faculty positions have a clear teaching component and a clear research component.
- Successful reinvention experiments, curricula and other related projects should be collected and disseminated so as to provide a blueprint for other universities and departments.
- Congress and the NSF should continue to support and facilitate scholarly research related to learning at the undergraduate level.
- Funding agencies must continue to encourage and expand the participation of STEM majors in undergraduate research.
- Funding agencies, universities and professional societies must actively support, facilitate and provide incentives for the entry and sustained professional development of women, underrepresented minorities and the physically disabled in STEM programs.
Government agencies, foundations, industries and professional organizations can provide essential help. It is, however, university faculties that must initiate and bring about change. Achieving fundamental change is a slow, difficult and expensive process. Our nation's future justifies the investment.
- Diversity in the Science and Engineering Workforce
While equal opportunity for participation in higher education for all citizens is a long-term social goal achievable only with consistent national commitment and investments, current demographic changes are affecting our ability to produce scientists and engineers now. Based on a review of successful programs6, Sigma Xi recommends:
- Programs that encourage human interactions between more experienced STEM professionals and women and minority students through mentorship, internships, and research experience, should be expanded and widely supported via government funding, professional association programs and private funding. All STEM departments at colleges and universities should consider peer and mentor support programs for minority and women majors at undergraduate and graduate levels aimed at retaining a larger proportion of these students through graduation.
- Educational reforms at the K-12 and undergraduate levels must address the difficulties that lack of access to good academic preparation poses for poor and underrepresented minority students.
- Access to information about college level training needs to be improved. There is early evidence that "coaching" on how to apply for college admission and financial support for students in high schools, especially those schools where few graduates normally attend college, can increase the number of students who apply for post-secondary training7 .
- The cultural experience in many poor and minority communities does not support the common practice of incurring thousands of dollars of loan debt for college training. Access to information about financial aid and the process of obtaining aid needs to be streamlined in order to retain minority students in college programs8.
- Educational institutions need to reassess how the general climate in STEM fields discourages the participation of women and minorities at their institutions and introduce appropriate changes9.
- Policy makers and funders must direct more attention to assisting 2-year colleges. These institutions have large numbers of students from under represented groups. Programs are needed that encourage students to move on to teaching or science research careers, and help them to make the transition to 4-year institutions.
- Graduate Training and Beyond
The most reliable way to attract a diverse and talented range of people to STEM research careers is to make those fields attractive relative to others that involve similar time commitments and educational costs. At the moment, there is very little reward for the uncertainty and long commitment that we require of STEM graduate students, and not surprisingly, graduate school attrition rates are high10.
Sigma Xi endorses the recommendations related to improving graduate student experience in science and engineering contained in the Congressional report, Unlocking Our Future11. These recommendations focus on:
- Increasing the size of individual grants for doctoral and postdoctoral training. NIH has substantially increased postdoctoral salaries in recent years. This increase should be expanded to students in the physical sciences and engineering. In general federal funding for research in all scientific fields should be more balanced among broad disciplinary areas.
- Expanding funding opportunities targeted at scientists early in their careers to offset funding shifts away from young researchers that have developed over the past two decades12. In the present climate, young researchers see no viable career structure between postdoctoral and tenured professor appointments.
- Developing appropriate university policies to control the length of time spent in graduate and postdoctoral program study.
- Continuing to expand on initiatives to make STEM graduate training programs more flexible. Specifically, graduate students should be permitted to pursue coursework and gain relevant experience outside of their specific area of research.
The significance of the supply of talented STEM researchers to the health of the economy warrants coordinated and well-funded research into the dynamics of the scientific labor market. This research should be directed at the collection of data and the design of models that can be used to predict more accurately the future demand for, and supply of, STEM- trained individuals.
The climate for women and underrepresented minorities in STEM graduate programs has improved at many colleges and universities. There is considerable research on this topic, and many institutions have begun to experiment with programs explicitly designed to address this situation. Progress that has begun to improve the climate needs to be supported. Ultimately, the ability of institutions to attract and retain women and minority students will be the test of their success.
- Continued funding should be made available to universities, diversity oriented organizations and professional organizations that disseminate new information, facilitate dialogue on the climate issues and evaluate their success.
- Communicating Science-Public Understanding and Participation
There is a large gap with respect to understanding of scientific issues between the scientific community and the general public, and it is the responsibility of the scientific community to bridge that gap13 . The better the citizens and the officials on whom researchers rely for their essential support are educated and trained to understand the nature of process and progress in scientific research, the better the prospects will be for restoring a more productive partnership with science, society and government. Not only should scientific literacy for informed democratic participation be encouraged, but also the scientific community should improve its capacity to listen to and incorporate public concerns.
- Institutions that encourage the interactions of scientists and the public in making technical decisions should be encouraged and actively supported by professional organizations, universities and funders.
- Programs that advance the public understanding of science through popular culture, books, plays, film and radio programs, like the programs of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, should be encouraged and expanded.
- Joint journalism - STEM academic programs and coursework should be encouraged through grants and other incentives.
- Sigma Xi and other professional organizations should expand their existing services to journalists to provide information and contact with scientists so that news stories can be covered with greater accuracy14.
- Scientists and engineers at any level, including tenure-track faculty, with an aptitude and an interest in public speaking, should be encouraged to take time away from academic work to participate in programs designed to communicate science to the public, without penalty to their careers. Funding agencies, journals and the media can support these scientists through grants and fellowships.
- Sigma Xi publications on science education are listed at
- The Burroughs-Wellcome Fund has announced the creation of the North Carolina Science, Mathematics and
Technology Education Center. NSF has announced grants to University of Georgia, Washington University in St.
Louis and the AAAS ($ 9.9 million) to develop new centers for improving K-12 education in science and
mathematics. The Chronicle of Higher Education 10/25/02 "NSF Awards $50-Million to Support 5 New Centers for
Science and Mathematics Education." http://chronicle.com/daily/2002/10/2002102504n.htm and
The NSF Criterion 2, an evaluation requirement for research grant proposals has received considerable attention as a
vehicle for encouraging research scientists to actively convert research discoveries to educational tools. A summary
of the Criterion 2 can be found at http://www.nsf.gov/od/opp/opp_advisory/oaccrit2.htm
- Teach For America is the national corps of outstanding recent college graduates, of all academic majors, who
commit two years to teach in public schools in low-income communities. http://www.teachforamerica.org/
- These recommendations were adapted from the Sigma Xi Report, An Exploration of the Nature and Quality of
Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics and Engineering. A Report of the National Advisory Group of
Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. (1989) (The Wingspread Report)
- A good source of information on successful programs is BEST (Building Engineering and Science Talent
- "Bridging the Gap: Two experts on higher-education policy go to a low-income high school to test their ideas on
how to get more students into college." Chronicle of Higher Education, August 9, 2002
- For example, a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that financial difficulties are a significant factor in
the poor retention rates of Hispanic students. Initially, Hispanics are actually enrolling in post-secondary education
at higher rates than are their white counterparts. Financial support rather than academic preparation is the likely
explanation for the trend. http://www.pewhispanic.org/site/docs/pdf/final_joint_college_release-suro_edit.pdf
- The Association of Women in Science has developed a website that offers guidance and assistance in the process
of evaluating campus "climate" issues. http://www.chillyclimate.org/
- Unlocking Our Future. Toward a New National Science Policy. A report to Congress by the House Committee on
Science, September 24, 1998 http://www.house.gov/science/science_policy_report.htm
- "NIH Grantees: Where Have all the Young Ones Gone", Science, 298:40-41, October 4, 2002
- NSF Science and Engineering Indicators 2002 Chapter 7: Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public
Understanding, reports on a variety of polling information about attitudes to science.
- Sigma Xiís Media Resource Service (MediaResource) is the oldest referral service for journalists in existence. It is a public understanding of science program that helps journalists to strengthen their science-related stories by providing independent expert sources. The sources are good communicators of science who provide journalists with the context and commentary necessary for clear and balanced reporting of science and technology. Experts range
from researchers at academic institutions and corporations to government scientists and policy-makers to those ethicists and historians of science based in our nation's broad collection of think tanks and associations.