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Experts Debate NSF Pre-College Program

WASHINGTON—A recommendation that Congress look into taking responsibility for pre-college education programs away from the National Science Foundation has caught the attention of the science community. But the suggestion from retiring Rep. Donald Fuqua (D-Fla.) that the Department of Education could better handle the job is viewed more as an attempt to stir up science educators than to take the Foundation out of the business of elementary and secondary school science. In a brief discussion

By | January 12, 1987

WASHINGTON—A recommendation that Congress look into taking responsibility for pre-college education programs away from the National Science Foundation has caught the attention of the science community. But the suggestion from retiring Rep. Donald Fuqua (D-Fla.) that the Department of Education could better handle the job is viewed more as an attempt to stir up science educators than to take the Foundation out of the business of elementary and secondary school science.

In a brief discussion at their most recent meeting, several members of the National Science Board indicated the idea was worth considering. "The fact is," commented Tom Day, president of San Diego State University, "the NSF has been involved in secondary school science education for a generation and a half and the results have not been good."

The Foundation's top administrators bristle at any talk of removing pre-college education activities, which include support for museums, television series and research on the subject. "Science education is a continuum," said Foundation Director Erich Bloch. "You can't just start at the undergraduate or graduate level. There's lots of room for all of us to work in this area."

Fuqua, the former chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, said in a farewell statement to Congress last fall (see "Face to Face," November 17, 1986) that the subject may be "better handled by educators than by research scientists." Science would find a "comfortable niche" within the Department of Education, he added, surrounded by a larger budget and insulated from the "ravenous mavens of research" and the often "unrealistic and elitist" approaches of NSF. He said the Foundation, for example, has been emphasizing curriculum development when teacher training needs are far more critical.

"NSF is uniquely qualified to attack and address problems in a way that no other agency or private group could," said Michael Knapp, co-director of a $1.6 million SRI International study of pre-college education for the Foundation. "This does not mean, however, that NSF can or should do it all." The first part of the project, on the Foundation's current efforts, is expected to be completed next month.

While many science educators agree that congressional attention would provide an important forum for discussion, they question the wisdom of removing the program from NSF.

Going Nowhere

"I'd welcome the chance to bring the problems out for public comment, but I don't think the recommendation will go anywhere," said F. James Rutherford, chief education officer at the American Assoelation for the Advancement of Science. "I don't even think the Department of Education is really interested. The whole idea probably comes out of an understandable frustration on Capitol Hill with NSF's inability to get something done."

Moving the education directorate would make more difficult the already tough job of mobilizing the science education community, said Rutherford, a former assistant secretary within the Education Department. He added that most scientists view the Department as "soft, with no special expertise in the sciences."

Representatives of the Department of Education and the House Science and Technology Committee declined to comment on the issue. The forthcoming 1,500-page report of the congressional Task Force on Science Policy, begun by Fuqua in 1984, "may or may not" include the transfer recommendation, according to a spokesperson for the committee.

Regardless of its fate, the former chairman's suggestion seems to have renewed debate on the thorny question of how to give students a solid grounding in the sciences.

"Fuqua's recommendation may be a parting shot everyone will ignore, but it seems like part of a well thought-out document prepared with the help of committee staff," said Stephen Willoughby, former president of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents. "I think it could have serious implications for the science education community."

Allister Mackinnon, coordinator of federal legislation at the New York State Education Department, sees merit in Fuqua's proposal. The Foundation's "Nobel laureate syndrome" has made it unable to generate broad involvement in science education, he said, adding that the Education Department is more likely to follow through on policy recommendations.

San Diego State's Day is concerned about NSF's progress. "We need to be focusing on how best to teach all our students, not just those in kindergarten. To the extent I understand the issue, I think it's worth discussing."

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