Companies Finance University Efforts to Improve Science Education

May 08, 2013

The Obama administration on Wednesday announced the selection of nine university groups for a $10-million initiative with corporate partners to improve the teaching of engineering to undergraduates.

Under the program, known as "Graduate 10K+," the selected public and private institutions will spend the next five years testing various strategies to raise graduation rates in the sciences. Currently only about 45 percent of undergraduates majoring in sciences complete their degrees.

"This is going to help create some replicable models for significantly improving retention and persistence and completion rates," said Thomas A. Kalil, deputy director for technology and innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

It's the latest in a series of efforts by the federal government, universities, and businesses to tackle shortfalls in science education, which have led President Obama to set a goal of producing one million university graduates in the sciences over the next decade.

In another prominent initiative, the Association of American Universities plans next month to select eight of its member institutions for its own five-year evaluation of better teaching methods in the sciences.

The White House, with its announcement on Wednesday of the "Graduate 10K+" program, sought broader participation than just AAU members, which are regarded as the nation's premier research universities. The "Graduate 10K+" program also is aimed primarily at the fields of engineering and computer science, as those are the areas of science where the nation has the greatest need for workers, Mr. Kalil said.

The nine groups announced on Wednesday for the White House effort, as chosen by the National Science Foundation, will be led by California State University-Monterey Bay, Cornell University (N.Y.), Merrimack College (Mass.), Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, Syracuse University (N.Y.), the University of Portland (Ore.), the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Texas-Pan American, and a partnership of the University of Washington and Washington State University.

Many of the projects promote teaching approaches shown by research to be more effective than traditional lecture formats. Those approaches include placing greater emphasis on student-to-student collaborations, and giving students more direct exposure to real-world job situations.

The work will be financed with $10-million in donations from the Intel Corporation and the GE Foundation, and a contribution by Mark T. Gallogly, a hedge-fund manager who serves on a White House economic-advisory board.

An Example to Follow

That amount of money is relatively small given the size of the problem, said Carl E. Wieman, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who until last year helped guide science-education policy at the White House. "But if it sets an example that many other companies follow, it could be quite significant," Mr. Wieman said.

Mr. Wieman, who established his own center at the University of British Columbia to test improvements in science education, has sharply criticized universities for their pace of change in introducing teaching improvements.

The new White House and AAU initiatives don't appear to tackle the fundamental structures that lead universities and their faculty members to prioritize research over teaching, Mr. Wieman said. The White House effort is admirable, however, in that it concentrates on the first and second years of college, when students are most likely to abandon the study of science, he said. It is also encouraging, he said, to see signs that companies are willing to put more money into the effort.

The initiatives are being unveiled at the same time Congress is considering a reauthorization of the America Competes Act, which sets budgetary and policy guidelines for federal spending on science. A major focus of that debate has concerned the importance of science education to the health of the American economy, and the degree to which government policy should encourage and finance certain types of science education.

Among the more aggressive recommendations for the renewal of the Competes Act has been a suggestion by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation to establish new types of science-oriented universities and to designate at least 20 "manufacturing universities."

The foundation, with a board that includes corporate and university leaders as well as politicians in both parties, also proposed replacing the NSF with a new entity that would be concerned with promoting engineering as much as basic science.

The Canadian government announced a similar move on Tuesday. Gary T. Goodyear, the minister of state for science and technology, said at a briefing in Ottawa that the country's National Research Council, a financer of basic research in Canada for nearly a century, now would emphasize industrial research and business development.