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Report from the NSF Workshop on:

Information Technology and Undergraduate Science, Mathematics,
Engineering, and Technology (SMET) Education in the Nation:
Challenges and Opportunities #

April 18 - 20, 1996
Washington, DC

Lee L. Zia, NSF-DUE, University of New Hampshire
Michael C. Mulder, NSF-DUE, University of Southwestern Louisiana


The past decade has witnessed spectacular improvements in the computational capabilities of computers and calculators, and more recently, stunning advances in their communication capabilities. The marriage of these two functional modes has produced powerful information technology tools which have important applications inundergraduate science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (SMET) education. First, these tools can enable students to simulate, visualize, model, and experiment with complex real-world scientific problems, thus promoting exploratory and inquiry-based modes of learning. Second, information technology can enable collaboration, interactive learning, and vital changes in pedagogy, leading to a restructuring of traditional modes of student-faculty interaction. Third, changes in long-standing dissemination, distribution, and publishing paradigms are made possible by information technology. Taken together these offer great promise for supporting continual improvements in all aspects of undergraduate education.

The existence of these powerful tools and their underlying networking infrastructure has also led to questions that challenge the spatial and temporal boundaries, indeed the very form and purpose that have traditionally defined undergraduate teaching and learning. Information technology now offers the possibility for learning and teaching to take place in new settings. Against this backdrop it is also recognized that the backgrounds of faculty vary more widely than in the past, and the roles that undergraduate faculty must play are also changing. Students too are bringing new experiences and skills to the under graduate classroom, especially as a result of changes in the practices of the K-12 community. Higher education must play an integral part in addressing the opportunities and challenges offered by the use of information technology in this complex and quickly changing educational landscape.

To help provide guidance to the National Science Foundation (NSF) and its Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE) on issues of concern to the undergraduate community regarding the use of information technology and the possibilities it holds for enabling improvements in the undergraduate enterprise, a meeting was convened by DUE on April 18-20,1996, entitled "Information Technology: A Workshop on its Impact on Teaching and Learning in Undergraduate Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology Education". This meeting brought together in a working conference approximately thirty-five participants representing a cross-section of the broader undergraduate educational community, including faculty, students, administrators, publishers, and representatives of industry. The primary purposes of the workshop were: i) to identify examples of the "effective" uses of information technology; ii) to consider their impact on various parts of the undergraduate enterprise; iii) to investigate dissemination and assessment/evaluation issues implied by the use of information technology; and iv) to speculate on and help NSF anticipate the impact of future developments.


Prior to the meeting a listserv was used to generate e-mail discussion among participants in order to help attendees "calibrate" with each other in terms of their "vocabulary and experience" in discussing information technology, and to identify important themes and issues. The meeting itself was organized around a series of concurrent small group discussions. In this section we summarize the format of the workshop and present guiding questions which were used to facilitate discussion. A final workshop report is expected that synthesizes the richness and variety of views expressed.

In the first of four breakout sessions, participants gathered in background-specific groups (e.g. a student group, an administrator group, etc.) to engage in discussion guided by two questions:

This session was followed by discussion on evaluation and dissemination criteria in the face of information technology. Questions considered during this segment were:

Based on reports from this second session, themes for further in-depth discussion were identified by the participants, who self-organized into a third set of concurrent breakout working groups on the following topics:

During the last breakout session participants focused their attention on future directions and recommendations, with a goal of developing a set of "needs for the undergraduate community" with regards to the usage of information technology. Several tasks and questions were posed to help facilitate discussion:

Post-workshop discussion has continued via the listserv and we expect that these contributions will be synthesized and included in the final workshop report.


Participants embraced a broad view of information technology as a set of tools and resources which enhance human capability for computation and communication, with inputs and outputs to these two processes characterized by multiple modes and multiple media. Several categories were identified under these two primary functions. Enhanced computational capability enables modeling, simulation, experimentation, and visualization, often with real data (e.g. numeric and symbolic computational application software, special purpose simulation packages). Communication capability can be enhanced with both synchronous modes of operation (e.g. multiuser object-oriented domains)and asynchronous modes (e.g. electronic mail and listservs). Collaboration was noted as a special instance of communication, with mentoring and tutoring (even drill and practice) being cited as appropriate in some learning contexts. Finally, as new hardware and software technologies emerge, combinations of the above modes and categories can be provided, (e.g. multimedia, hypermedia, and executable content delivered via Java technology).

In terms of examples of "effective usage" of information technology several categories were offered. Many speak in terms of modes of learning that are enabled: (self) exploration, consideration of a large number of examples often in real-time, consideration of complex models and large datasets, movement from a teacher-centered classroom environment to a learner-centered one, independent research, and multiple approaches to learning. Others look for evidence of effectiveness in the increased access to educational experience that information technology can enable through changes in the schedule and location of "delivery" of that experience. Decreasing attrition is sometimes also cited. Finally, cost factors both direct and indirect enter into the picture: relatively simple and inexpensive technology(e.g. calculators), minimal startup time (e.g. spreadsheets), accessibility to many students and faculty (scalability and transportability issues).

While the various examples that were used to illustrate these categories were reported by the participants themselves and thus represent primarily anecdotal (but high quality) evidence of localized and individual efforts, we would argue that the multiplicity of disciplines reporting and the variety and range of usage reported reflects substantial progress already made in incorporating information technology into undergraduate teaching and learning. In support of this view a recent national survey (see Green) reveals that the number of college courses incorporating work in computer classrooms increased from 16% in 1994 to 24% in 1995. E-mail has been integrated into their teaching by approximately 20% of college faculty, double the previous year; and similar increases have occured in the use of computer simulations and courseware. Finally, nearly half of all students and three-fourths of all faculty have access to the Internet and the WorldWide Web. (footnote 1)

However, as encouraging as these data are, significant hurdles must still be overcome if the broader undergraduate enterprise is to realize the full potential that information technology offers for the improvement of learning and teaching in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. Indeed, to a large extent the themes identified by the workshop participants for the third discussion session reflect the concerns of the higher education community and the challenges that it faces in providing a student-centered learning environment. (Some of these are also echoed in the call for a National Learning Infrastructure Initiative issued by EDUCOM, see Twigg.)

Much more faculty development is needed, to link faculty users of information technology resources with the best efforts of faculty developers of information technology resources. Too many faculty still find themselves in the role of inventor.


From the initial review (footnote 2) of discussion and new issues raised during this workshop on the impact of information technology undergraduate science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education, we believe that leadership with respect to the broad undergraduate educational community is called for in several key areas, including:

  1. Continued identification, development, and wide-scale implementation of usage of information technology that significantly enhances student learning;
  2. Demonstration projects that model the effective use of information technology to address the human and capital infrastructure demands that face institutions of higher education;
  3. Increased research in and evaluation of learning outcomes and pedagogical changes in technology-rich settings;
  4. Improvement and sustainment of faculty capacity to engage their students in the new modes of learning afforded by the use of educational technology;
  5. Encouragement of innovative usage of information technology to aid in the dissemination and implementation of "effective" practices in undergraduate SMET education; and
  6. Creative collaborations or partnerships with the business and industry sector to develop and promote effective use of information technology that promotes a student-centered learning environment.

The NSF Division of Undergraduate Education offers opportunities for faculty to provide leadership in these areas through all of its programs. DUE encourages faculty to examine seriously the issues surrounding the usage of information technology and to develop proposals for projects which address these needs in creative ways that have the potential for national impact.


  1. Green, Kenneth C., "The Coming Ubiquity of Information Technology", Change, Volume 28, Number 2, 1996.
  2. Twigg, Carol A., "The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure", Educom Review, Volume 29, Numbers 4, 5, 6, 1994.

# Both authors are currently serving as "rotators" with the NSF Division of Undergraduate Education. The views expressed in this article are entirely their opinion and do not necessarily reflect official policy of the National Science Foundation.

1. Note, however, that these figures reflect use of information technology in more than just science, mathematics, engineering, and technology settings.

2. As noted earlier, a final workshop report is expected later this year.