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Helping to Shape the Future of Education

Norman L. Fortenberry and James J. Powlik

Abstract - For more than a decade, the National Science Foundation's Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE) has continued to extend and broaden its efforts in the revitalization of undergraduate education. This process began with innovative single projects, then expanded to disciplinary initiatives in engineering, calculus, and chemistry that sought to disseminate best practices across all institutions. The current emphasis of DUE programs is on continued systemic reform through faculty and teacher development as well as curricular reform and laboratory improvement. The effect of these activities is the presentation of material in an engaging manner, employing effective pedagogy and instructional technology to attract and retain students in engineering, mathematics, and the sciences. They additionally prepare all graduates - majors as well as non-majors - for entry into the workforce, rewarding careers, and a desire to continue learning throughout their lives. In considering the recommendations arising from the recent review of undergraduate education and the opinions of the community at large, DUE will continue to provide coordination and assistance in the comprehensive reform of higher education.

I. Introduction

The Division of Undergraduate Education (DUE) is the focal point of the National Science Foundation's agency-wide effort in undergraduate education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (SME&T). DUE's programs and leadership efforts aim to strengthen and ensure the vitality of undergraduate education in SME&T for all students as they prepare for their futures as professionals, K-12 teachers, technicians, civic leaders, and responsible citizens in an increasingly technological society.

II. Curriculum Development Activities at NSF

The National Science Foundation is known for its support of innovation in research and education. In the 1980s, there were a number of innovative projects in education underway - "incubators" if you will - remarkable in their own right, but also less integrated than desired with the mainstream teaching community. This situation was not the result of indifference, but rather, lack of effective communication of these effective practices beyond the locale where they were developed. NSF partially addressed this situation in its curriculum development programming with initiatives in engineering and calculus education in 1988, activities which sought to include innovative practices across an entire discipline within an institution. The influence of these efforts led to the Engineering Education Coalitions (1990), the expanded calculus initiative, and the systemic initiatives in mathematics and chemistry (1991), activities that sought to extend reform within these disciplines across all institutions offering undergraduate education. Sited in DUE's Course and Curriculum Development (CCD) program, the Mathematical Sciences and their Applications throughout the Curriculum initiative promotes broad and significant improvements in undergraduate education that can lead to increased student appreciation of, and ability to use, mathematics. Comprehensive projects are expected to better integrate mathematics into other disciplines and improve instruction in the mathematical sciences by incorporating the perspectives of other disciplines. Similarly, the CCD program's Systemic Changes in the Undergraduate Chemistry Curriculum initiative enhances the learning and appreciation of science through significant changes in chemistry instruction. Supported projects are designed to make fundamental changes in the role of chemistry within the institution, including better integration with curricula in related disciplines such as engineering, biology, physics, geology, materials science, computer science, and mathematics. Currently, previously funded projects in this initiative are serving as nuclei for an "adaption and adoption" initiative for new projects wishing to employ similar methods. Recommendations specific to the reform of undergraduate engineering education are provided in the report Restructuring Engineering Education: A Focus on Change ( NSF 95-65 , p.9): "In order to prepare graduates for the challenges of the 21st century, the engineering community must:

  • Develop a rigorous educational research base on the teaching and learning of undergraduate engineering topics;
  • Restructure curricula to include integration of contextual experience, appreciation for the complexities of physical devices and structures, broad attention to learning environments, and recognition of the differing backgrounds and career goals of the students; and
  • Develop faculty and organizational structures better prepared to implement revised curricula and laboratories and to address the broad range of factors which influence student learning.
  • Redesigned engineering educational systems should better meet the needs not only of engineers, but also:
  • the large number of students who will use their backgrounds in engineering and technology to serve them in their roles as literate citizens;
  • future leaders in industry, academe and government;
  • future teachers of mathematics, science and technology, including those at the elementary level; and
  • future scientists and mathematicians."
  • Examples of such efforts within the CCD program include a project at Princeton University (NJ), which has developed an introductory-level course to attract students into engineering and to educate non-engineering students, including prospective teachers, in engineering principles. At Tufts University (MA), a unique curriculum partners engineering faculty with educators from the Department of Child Study in order to 1) better prepare early childhood teachers in the teaching of science and technology; and 2) to engage and retain students in the study of engineering. With DUE support, the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET, MD) is revising accreditation criteria in order to maintain an emphasis on professional preparation while allowing flexibility for innovative pedagogy, and devising a simplified accreditation process promoting continuous improvement. Auburn University (AL) is addressing the implementation, evaluation, and refinement of an introductory-level sophomore course for preparing engineering, business, and industrial design students to function effectively on cross-disciplinary design teams. Purdue University (IN) is combining computers with human capital in order to improve academic advising in engineering education. The University of North Dakota (ND) is focusing on paraprofessionals, distance learners and adult learners in industry with its enhanced curriculum for undergraduate engineering. A CCD project at North Seattle Community College (WA) is developing a year-long, team taught pre-engineering program entitled "Math and Physics: Tools for Careers in Engineering." National Technological University (CO) is promoting the dissemination of best practices in undergraduate education by hosting a series of interactive teleconferences. North Carolina State University (NC) is conducting an evaluation of a number of instructional methods shown to promote effective learning, including team-based scenarios, open-ended problems, and problem-creation exercises. The City University of New York City College (NY) is the site of a project that introduces innovative changes in instruction to enhance engineering students' learning and improve their comprehension in both theoretical and laboratory courses. (Above examples from NSF 95-161).

    In addition to these efforts, DUE programs in Teacher Preparation (TP) and Advanced Technological Education (ATE) were established to promote common themes among institutions - for example, active learning, effective use of instructional technology, critical thinking, and hands-on learning experiences - to students preparing to be future teachers or technicians. The Instrumentation and Laboratory Improvement (ILI) program was established to address the needs of the aging cadre of scientific and technical teaching laboratories. The Undergraduate Faculty Enhancement (UFE) program provides an opportunity for educators to network with other faculty and keep their knowledge and skills up to date via professional development workshops.

    III. Reforming Education Institution-Wide

    Programmatically, comprehensive reform of education is recognized within DUE by the initiative Institution-Wide Reform of Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology. First funded in FY 1996, the "IR initiative" is a special thrust of the CCD program, in partnership with other divisions within the Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR). It provides catalytic seed funds as both an incentive and a reward to institutions that have made significant improvements in the quality of education and are now prepared to introduce sweeping changes to extend the impact of traditional, discipline-based departments. Because undergraduate education is central to the educational experience, and includes such a large, diverse, and growing segment of the population, its reform has potentially widespread application.

    Uniquely and most significantly, IR awards encourage the totality of effort required to achieve reform of undergraduate education on a single campus. This means that among a long list of beneficiaries attention is devoted to faculty, students, staff, curricula and institutional policies and procedures. These awards are also inherently inter- and multidisciplinary. The IR initiative is a natural extension of DUE's mandate to improve the quality of SME&T instruction at diverse types of institutions, to prepare and retain diverse and intellectually vigorous students and teachers, to develop interdisciplinary SME&T curricula, to prepare students for rewarding technical and instructional careers, and promote scientific literacy in all citizens. It is particularly appropriate for EHR to encourage such reform efforts because of the leadership responsibilities EHR has in assuring that the science and mathematics education provided at all levels, and for all students, is of high quality.

    As with the first year's awards, the FY 1997 IR awards highlight positive examples for state legislators, governors, boards of trustees, parents, and students that several institutions are responding to the changing needs of their students and of society for their graduates. The ultimate goal of the awards is to benefit all students at institutions undertaking campus-wide reform, preparing graduates who can make valuable, responsible and informed contributions to society, and who can flourish in the technology-based society of the future. Awards of up to $200,000 were made to each of 19 campuses representing all types of institutions offering undergraduate education. Notable examples include: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MA), which is developing a new Undergraduate Communication Requirement. The enhanced emphasis on communication skills will serve to better prepare engineering, science, and mathematics students for professional and managerial roles with the capacity to communicate effectively with a wide range of audiences. Drexel University (PA) is using faculty drawn from its acclaimed E4 (engineering) and EBE (biological sciences) education programs to extend and broaden its campus reform efforts, while the Colorado School of Mines (CO) will develop cross-curriculum programs and a sequence of Systems courses with an integrated humanities and social sciences component. Sinclair Community College (OH) - already the site of the National Center of Excellence for Advanced Manufacturing Education (NCE/AME) funded by DUE's Advanced Technological Education program - is addressing traditional barriers to educational reform such as the coordination of curricula with the means by which they are delivered and the demands of the workplace. By creating a Parallel College to test key changes in operating systems, the college hopes its results will be of benefit to students as well as their potential employers and the community at large.

    With such efforts, tangible groundwork has been established for promoting communication between disciplines as well as among institutions of markedly different types and levels of resources. This communication is more than a sharing of ideas; it is the conduit by which truly systemic reform becomes possible. Clearly, the improvement of teaching methods, the preparation and competency of educators, the engagement of students, and the provision of an excellent and relevant educational experience should be implicit in all SME&T disciplines. The ultimate result of these efforts is the production of confident, highly-skilled, and technically proficient graduates who are not only ready to contribute immediately to the workforce, but also well-prepared for the future and inspired to continue learning throughout their lives.

    IV. Reviewing the State of Undergraduate Education

    This year DUE has continued the excitement and community motivation inspired by the 1995/96 review of undergraduate education conducted by an Advisory Committee to NSF's Directorate for Education and Human Resources. The findings and recommendations of this study are now published in the committee's report to NSF: Shaping the Future: New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology (request publication NSF 96-139 or reference the document through the DUE home page at The recommendations of the Committee were presented and discussed with academe en masse at the national Shaping the Future conference, held in Washington DC, July 11-13, 1996. Drawing together multi-tiered and cross-jurisdictional teams from more than 50 institutions, conference delegates were engaged in an enthusiastic discussion to recognize current exemplars in revitalizing undergraduate education and to identify areas for improvement.

    Shaping the Future is the first major study of its kind in nearly a decade and has catalyzed discussion about necessary change in undergraduate education. As the outcome of a comprehensive process of public hearings, interviews, discussions, and a synopsis of hundreds of opinions solicited from across the nation, the report broadly represents the perspectives of constituents and stakeholders in the higher education community. The National Year of Dialogue on undergraduate education co-sponsored by NSF and the National Research Council has indeed begun a revitalization of the way in which undergraduate education is taught.

    The notion of recognizing innovation and success in educational and pedagogical efforts at a level on par with similar gains in research and applied technology has been a significant part of the Committee's recommendations. Moreover, there is a need for engineers, scientists, mathematicians, and technicians alike to be actively involved as educators with the benefit of practical experience. Such recognition is essential not only to improving the overall quality of pedagogy and the career satisfaction of existing faculty, but also to recruiting more students into careers as educators (faculty and preK-12 teachers) and encouraging all faculty to balance their research efforts with equally inspired feats in the classroom. Several recent studies on the state of education in the United States have revealed that such is not currently the case. Indeed, national attention and increased public concern has been drawn to the competency and preparation of teachers and instructors.

    The teacher is the single most important factor affecting student learning at all classroom levels, and it is often overlooked that all future teachers gain their understanding of the subjects they will teach while they are undergraduate students. More than ever before, Engineering Professionals have the opportunity to provide experienced, relevant education to undergraduates.

    Of particular concern is the need for educators at all levels - preK-12 teachers through university faculty - who are well prepared in science and mathematics, knowledgeable in the use of new instructional technologies, and skilled in a variety of effective teaching methods that lend relevance and inspiration to the learning experience. Taken collectively, such findings suggest the professional competence of many educators - particularly in SME&T areas - is not sufficient to engage students and prepare them for advanced study or employment in today's technically demanding workplace. A proportion of these ill-prepared graduates will become educators themselves, and are apt to repeat the ineffective or uninspiring practices they experienced as undergraduate students - carrying-over and magnifying poor practices and inadequate tutelage to a new generation.

    Among DUE-sponsored projects in teacher preparation, Tufts University (MA) is developing a laboratory experimentation curriculum for engineering students and liberal arts majors (primarily pre-service teachers). College of Engineering faculty at the University of Florida (FL) are working with College of Education faculty and elementary school teachers to develop a course focusing on current aerospace concepts designed for education majors intending to teach elementary school. (Consult NSF 96-82 or NSF 96-146 for other recent awards in teacher preparation).

    A basic premise of the Foundation's efforts in the preparation of prospective elementary and secondary teachers is that the science, mathematics, engineering and technology (SME&T) that prospective teachers learn as part of their undergraduate education, and the manner in which the courses are presented, have a critical influence on the quality of their teaching. As part of its ongoing mission to balance excellence in research with superlative education in SME&T, the National Science Foundation initiated the NSF Collaboratives for Excellence in Teacher Preparation (CETP) program in 1991. Administered by DUE since 1992, the CETP program has become an exemplar of the increased emphasis in a comprehensive approach to the reform of higher education. In FY 1993, the CETP program funded the first of its Collaborative projects, each expected to become national models for teacher preparation and producing graduates who will play a leadership role in the systemic reform of K-12 education. The undergraduate education of these students exemplifies best practices in pedagogy, with classrooms that benefit from the most recent advances in instructional technology. Their experience will include the recently adopted national standards regarding science and mathematics course content and modes of delivery, and will represent and serve well the nation's increasingly diverse student body.

    An ongoing objective of the CETP program has been to involve consortia of institutions (comprehensive and research universities, two-year and four-year colleges), schools and school districts, community organizations and links to business and industry. Particularly important are coalitions of departments (engineering, science, mathematics, technology, and education), K-12 teachers, university and school district administrators within participating institutions. Faculty are encouraged to work in a cooperative effort to reform and improve programs in teacher preparation. As one example, the Arizona Collaborative for Excellence in the Preparation of Teachers (ACEPT), a consortium consisting of Arizona State University, the Maricopa Community College District (10 colleges), and the Navaho Community College (AZ), is focusing on the preparation of pre-service teachers, including the reform of elementary and secondary curricula and a new middle school endorsement.

    The sudden demand for greater numbers of preK-12 science and mathematics classes (in part a result of the new national standards in these subjects) is creating a much greater demand for teachers in mathematics and science than is indicated by attrition and population growth alone. Several analyses have concluded that the demand for qualified teachers has never been higher, particularly in urban areas and for science and mathematics courses. Student enrollment for 1998 will approach 52 million - higher than ever before, even at the height of the "baby boom." This equates to a need for some two million more teachers in the next ten years (NCTAF, 1996 ).

    Certainly this need for teachers will be met in one way or another; the more important question is by whom? A clear opportunity exists for the engineering community to contribute qualified professionals to meet this demand, improving the relevance and "real world" applicability of their instruction.

    V. Future Efforts

    The recently enacted Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) has placed new emphasis on accountability and measurable performance on all NSF activities. This presents an exciting opportunity to

  • more broadly share the successes and community impact of DUE-sponsored projects, providing strengthened dissemination efforts and expanded opportunity to adapt and adopt successful practices;
  • reduce potentially duplicative efforts among NSF programming; and
  • use the leverage of Foundation-wide efforts to promote even greater systemic reform through increased collaboration and sharing of projects between NSF programs - for example, the NSF Science and Technology Centers will be more active in undergraduate education.

  • VI. The NextSteps Campaign

    The Shaping the Future NextSteps campaign will carry forward the momentum from the review and its report and realize the discussion generated during the National Year of Dialogue. At the request of Luther Williams, NSF Assistant Director for Education and Human Resources, DUE Division Director Robert Watson was placed on special assignment to take the Committee's recommendations "into the community" as the measures are disseminated, adopted, and enacted. Activities currently planned in the NextSteps campaign can also be browsed on the DUE home page. If you, or someone in your community, would like to get involved in the dissemination process (as by hosting regional meetings, focus groups, or planning sessions), an orientation kit is also available.

    Increasingly, quality undergraduate SME&T education is necessary for the success of most citizens in our complex civilization. Consistent with the findings of the review, DUE continues to regard as its goal the best possible undergraduate SME&T education for all students in all types of U.S. two-and four-year colleges and universities, and maintains a portfolio of programs to promote this ambitious agenda. Looking to the future, the importance of such things as the preparation of teachers and the use of technology in the classroom cannot be overstated. No longer perceived as a luxury, the necessity of distributing knowledge to the community at large, in all its traditional, "virtual," or yet-to-be-discovered guises should be a paramount activity for agencies such as NSF. In coordinating and overseeing the activities of its projects nation-wide, NSF has a responsibility to assist and promote successful efforts, leading the entire community in the "cataloging" and dissemination of best practices. The extensive activity and change occurring in undergraduate education has fostered an increased need and opportunity to make this information more readily available to the widest possible audience. DUE is therefore in the process of gathering information to determine what role it should take in encouraging and assuring the systematic dissemination of peer reviewed findings, products, and outcomes of R&D projects related to undergraduate SME&T education.

    With the increasing complexity of mission and demands on faculty and institutions, these are times of uncertainty for many people. But they are also times of great promise as we see increasing interest in, attention to, and improvements of undergraduate SME&T education. We at DUE want to be as effective as possible to assist in the process of needed change in undergraduate education. As always, we welcome comment and advice on the contents on any aspect of the DUE mission. Additionally, we will continue to consider the comments of the community and the findings of reports such as Shaping the Future to ensure that NSF's commitment to undergraduate education will include investment in an effective portfolio of programs and activities to engage the higher education community in continued improvement.

    National Science Foundation Division of Undergraduate Education: 4201 Wilson Blvd., Room 835, Arlington, VA 22230. DUE Information Center (703) 306-1666, ,
    The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Division of Undergraduate Education, the Directorate for Education and Human Resources, or the National Science Foundation.


    We extend our thanks to Marion Hagler, Co-Editor of the Rapid Publication Supplement of the November 1997 issue of the IEEE Transactions on Education for requesting this contribution, and appreciate the opportunity to describe several activities and initiatives relevant to improved engineering education sponsored by the National Science Foundation.


    National Commission on Teaching & America's Future (NCTAF) , 1996. What Matters Most: Teaching for America's Future . Report of the National Commission on Teaching and America's Future. September, 1996 New York NY.

    National Science Foundation, 1995. Restructuring Engineering Education: A Focus on Change. Report of an NSF Workshop on Engineering Education (NSF 95-65). National Science Foundation Directorate for Education and Human Resources, Arlington, VA.

    National Science Foundation, 1995. Awards: 1994. Undergraduate Course and Curriculum Development program and Calculus and the Bridge to Calculus program (NSF 95-161). National Science Foundation Directorate for Education and Human Resources, Arlington, VA.

    National Science Foundation, 1995. FY 95 Awards: Teacher Preparation and NSF Collaboratives for Excellence in Teacher Preparation (NSF 96-82). National Science Foundation Directorate for Education and Human Resources, Arlington, VA.

    National Science Foundation EHR Advisory Committee (M.D. George, Chair), 1996. Shaping the Future: New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology (NSF 96-139). National Science Foundation Directorate for Education and Human Resources, Arlington, VA.

    National Science Foundation, 1996. FY 96 Awards: Teacher Preparation and NSF Collaboratives for Excellence in Teacher Preparation (NSF 96-146). National Science Foundation Directorate for Education and Human Resources, Arlington, VA.

    Contact Information

    Norman L. Fortenberry
    Division of Undergraduate Education
    Directorate for Education and Human Resources
    National Science Foundation
    4201 Wilson Blvd., Room 835
    Arlington, VA 22230
    Phone: (703) 306-1668
    Fax: (703) 306-0445

    James J. Powlik
    Friday Systems Services
    40 W. Gude Drive, #100
    Rockville, MD 20850
    Phone: (301) 309-0240
    Fax: (301) 309-0579


    Norman L. Fortenberry is Division Director, Undergraduate Education at the National Science Foundation for the year beginning 11/96. He is a clinical Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Previously, Dr. Fortenberry served as Executive Director of the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities in Engineering and Science, Inc. During prior NSF service, Dr. Fortenberry served as a program director for Engineering and as a staff associate within the Division of Undergraduate Education. Before joining the NSF in 1992, Dr. Fortenberry was a faculty member at Florida A&M University/Florida State University College of Engineering, where he taught and conducted research in the areas of design theory and methodology.

    James J. Powlik, an information and media specialist for Friday Systems Services, has been a consultant to DUE since 1995. As an oceanographer and Director of Raggedtooth Productions, Dr. Powlik has advised on technical content, education efficacy, program design, career counseling and public outreach for clients including NSF, NASA, the Earth Communications Office, science museums, aquariums, non-profit organizations, and school programs from kindergarten through graduate school. He is the author of several research papers on copepod and elasmobranch biology, biophysics, and methodology, and has written textbooks on vertebrate morphology, aquatic ecology, and oceanographic terminology.