The Pipeline: Still Leaking
Mobilizing the Community
I was part of that initiative. I had taken a position as education coordinator at one of the NSF Science and Technology Centers that was in the vanguard of what is often described as "outreach." As I understood it, one of our important goals was to improve opportunities for learning and teaching science, supported by collaboration between research scientists—a term I use in the broader sense, to include engineers—and educators. As a former teacher who had just completed graduate research in cognitive psychology, I was intrigued by the challenge to promote more science education. I value the analytical and quantitative thinking that is a major facet of coursework in science, engineering and mathematics. Students usually get the chance to acquire this knowledge only inside a formal degree structure. Why do so many miss this opportunity? Was it possible to make the subject areas more attractive to a broader range of students? Could we make this national problem a scientific community problem?
I had spent over 10 years at a research university where I talked daily with students who wanted to improve their performance in math and science courses. Many struggled with math and then gave up on science or engineering. Others described introductory courses as a series of hoops and hurdles that only one in three students was expected to survive. At home I had listened to our teenage daughters express serious doubts about whether it was worth making the extra effort that science courses were famous (or notorious) for. I believed that I was fairly well versed about why many students do not choose science careers.
I began to work with research scientists who adopted new roles in a range of partnerships with science teachers and K–12 schools. One important goal was to connect with teachers so that they could develop enough familiarity and understanding to become "representatives of science in their classrooms," a theme highlighted in the emerging national standards for science teachers. Faculty also opened their lab groups to high school and community college interns. The design of the internship program highlighted communication, teamwork and mentoring to introduce younger students to some of the more intriguing ideas in current science and to encourage them to consider careers in science, engineering or mathematics. Once they got a closer look at how scientists work, we thought, they might form more realistic impressions that would contradict traditional images of science as isolated and antisocial. The policies of funding agencies such as NSF encourage the involvement of scientists in such ventures. NSF's requirement that investigators make a broader impact has created new interest in the way that scientists can influence the next generation.
As we recruited volunteer undergraduates, we found that they had a strong interest in projects that appeared to enhance their professional skills and broaden their understanding of how they could apply their science and math training. Their new role in creating or demonstrating teaching resources seemed to help them understand the relevance of their academic work and to make connections with the community. It became clear that many undergrads in science and engineering courses appreciate the chance to study a complementary topic, such as business or art or education, and to think more about how their scientific training could he applied in other fields. It wasn't just K–12 science that needed attention.