Judy Sunley

NSF

How can the Internet, and “real world” applications bring better results? How can math and science teachers stay ahead of new developments in their subjects? The Assistant Director of the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources shares her observations.

How would you describe NSF’s role relative to K12 math and science education?

In the grand scheme of things in K-12 math and science education, NSF’s role is a fairly small one. We spend approximately $300 million a year in K-12 education, while the total national expenditure in K-12 education is around $360 billion.

Because of this, NSF has to be very focused — the term we tend to use is a scientific one, “catalytic.” That means that we tend to jump start activities, rather than fund long running, continuous activities. For example, we will work with school districts on efforts to pool a variety of resources, to get them started and to the point where they can sustain their educational improvement activities on their own.

What are your current objectives?

Primarily, we need to improve the poor performance of US students in the areas of science and math, in the face of the growing importance of those subjects in the workplace. We also need to remedy the disparate performance that we see between majority and minority students, and between students of different socioeconomic classes.

We believe that teachers have an essential role in helping students connect to the content that they’re learning, and we worry about the shortage of well-qualified math and science teachers in key areas.

Our program also works to address the influence of information technology in the workplace and in education.

In all of this, we’re looking at improving science and math education for all students for the twenty-first century.

Can you tell us a little about how you are going about accomplishing these objectives?

The simplest way of saying it is that we focus on teachers and the tools that they have for teaching math and science.

We look at things like the content knowledge and the pedagogical knowledge of teachers, and the links between content and pedagogy.

We are interested in usable information technology, instructional materials development, and methods of student assessment. And, to a certain extent, we are also looking at available research on how students learn, and trying to fold that into the mix as well.

Fundamental to all of this is a strategy that we call “systemic reform”.

What’s meant by “systemic reform”?

Systemic reform takes many of the pieces I mentioned earlier and tries to put them together systematically. The goal is to have school districts, states, and coalitions of school districts looking at standards, aligning curricula and assessments with standards, and providing professional development that causes things to happen in the classroom that reflect standards.

Then the basis of all of this work is the existence of standards.

Standards are important. They help set the expectations for all students and we know that students do better when you expect them to do better. It’s much easier to rise to expectations when the expectations are there and clearly understood.

Does NSF establish these standards?

No, the existing standards at the national level were established by the National Academy of Sciences and various professional associations.

While these efforts are not entirely without controversy, they have certainly set a baseline for discussion. And, in fact, we’re finding that many states and school districts are adopting standards that rely heavily on what has been developed through the national professional associations of teachers, scientists and mathematicians.

And how are these standards reflected in NSF’s work?

Among the other things it does, NSF provides funding for the development of new instructional materials and instructional methodologies. In our materials development program, we have emphasized the need to be consistent with standards, though not necessarily to follow the standards identically.

We do this because we want to make sure that there is a higher objective and purpose behind the development of curricula. We use the standards developed by the national community as sort of a rule of thumb for the kinds of things that are desirable and effective.

Let’s go back to something else you brought up earlier—the goal of remedying the disparity in performance among different ethnic groups and socioeconomic classes. Why is it so important that we increase the diversity of the people who are seeking advanced degrees in math and science technology?

That’s an interesting question, because many people will tell you that if we push underrepresented minorities, women, persons with disabilities, and so on, into the science and engineering areas, we could create a glut of people in this field.

But in fact, if you look at the science, math, engineering and technology community and the way it has developed over, say, the past 50 years, we have only been able to grow our community to the size that it is by relying on people coming in from other countries.

This means we are not doing as good a job as we should be doing of convincing US citizens of all types that they can be and should be interested in science, math, engineering and technology. And that they should be going out and going after the jobs in the fields that are paying high salaries today.

Additionally, I think it’s important that we have a pool of scientists, mathematicians and engineers that can serve as role models to draw all kinds of US citizens into these fields which I feel are the future of the country. And we need to keep in mind that the future of the country is a diverse one.

Do you see the Internet as a useful resource for what you’re trying to accomplish?

I think the potential is certainly there, and we’ve seen specific instances of usefulness of the Internet as a resource in K-12 education.

At the same time, we have a lot of work to do to make that potential a reality, where everyone in K-12 education has access to the Internet and access to high quality material through reliable sources.

This work is certainly worth doing. We’ve got a lot of people that are working on trying to figure out how to do this effectively.

How do you see the Internet being useful?

I think it can be a source of research and data for students. I think it can be a source for teachers to develop high quality lesson plans. And I think it can be a source of communication for both teachers and students.

As a tool for communication, the Internet could connect the teaching profession and give people opportunities to communicate with one another about what they’re doing in the classroom, in much more effective ways than we’ve had before.

Potentially, as I say, it’s a very strong and useful resource. But to realize that potential, we need to make sure that we have the high quality material there and that it is in a usable and useful format.

In the past decade or so, we’ve seen an increasing tendency to include real world applications in our math and science curricula. Is this approach valuable?

I think it’s an issue of, “How do you convey to students the excitement and importance of what they’re doing in math and science?”

I have a friend who used to argue that if you were giving piano lessons to someone and all you did was make them play scales for the first ten years until they were extremely proficient with scales, you would probably lose them after a year or two. They wouldn’t have anything that moved them beyond the pedantic to something that was really interesting to them.

I think you could have the same problem in math and science when you focus on vocabulary and classifications, or when you focus entirely on basic skills and manipulation of numbers. You can lose people, just because they don’t find it interesting and they don’t want to be involved with it. They haven’t been shown the beauty of what’s coming forward in science and how interesting and exciting and important it is in people’s lives.

I applaud many of the efforts to incorporate real life examples at various stages in the math and science curricula. There is the danger that the examples can be simplified so much that they’re no longer real world examples — but where you have good strong, realistic examples, it can help tremendously.

We’ve been talking about strategies and objectives, policies and materials development and so on, but the culmination of all of this work is what happens between a teacher and her or his students in the classroom. What do you think we can do better to support those teachers?

I think teachers have very hard jobs, and the kinds of help each teacher needs may be somewhat different.

But one thing we have to keep in mind is that the content of math and science changes over time, and how we expect students to use math and science changes over time.

We increasingly know more about how people learn math and science content, and that needs to be folded into a teacher’s thinking. We continually have new developments in educational technology and teachers need to think about how to fold them into what they’re teaching.

All in all, there is a great deal that is changing, continuously. And I don’t think that we really train teachers to understand that education in math and science is a moving target, and that teachers need to work with one another continually to build new content and new direction into their thinking and teaching practice.

As a separate point, one of the key things that we’re finding in our program is that it’s very important to link math and science content with instructional methods that get the content across to kids in ways they understand it.

If all you provide is content, the content doesn’t have reality to the teacher in terms of, “Are they going to be able to use it?” If all you provide is pedagogy that is not linked to the content, then teachers don’t necessarily see how to use those pedagogical devices with specific content.

So one of the things the NSF programs are trying to do is make sure that the content and the pedagogy get linked together, so that teachers can see new teaching methodology linked to content that they are actually going to be teaching.

Thank you very much.

It was my pleasure.

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