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Higher Education

The progress of K-12 science and mathematics education reform has been steady and sometimes accelerated since the publication of A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). To maintain this progress, future science and mathematics teachers will need deep and interconnected knowledge of their subjects and of cultural and social issues. Higher education has recently acknowledged its need for significant reform (Boyer, 1994), and colleges and universities have undertaken substantial efforts to change the ways they organize teaching and learning. These efforts are especially noticeable in the science, mathematics, and technology-related disciplines and bode well for the support and institutionalization of K-12 science education reform. Nonetheless, these reforms are only a beginning. It is clear that higher education must become a more active and visible participant if the reform process is to succeed in schools, colleges, and universities.

Higher education has a significant role to play in K-12 education reform.  For example, if as reformers envision, the entire K-12 science curriculum is restructured, higher education will have to rethink the way it admits, counsel, and places students; the way it organizes its curricula and teaches undergraduate science, mathematics, and technology; and the way it goes about preparing the next generation of school, college, and university faculty. Higher education can support K-12 reform by continuing to explore ways to improve science and mathematics education for undergraduate and graduate students alike.

After examining the current status of higher education, this chapter explores 1) needed changes in admissions and placement; 2) needed changes in the undergraduate curriculum; and 3) needed changes in teacher education.  It then describes ways for higher education to collaborate with K-12 reformers and build on their work.  Finally, it proposes some specific recommendations for changing higher education.

The Current Status

Science for All Americans [SFAA] (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1989) asserts that in order to achieve science literacy for all, it is just as important to consider how subjects are taught as what subjects are taught. Goroff (1995) agrees, taking the argument a step further by saying that for the purposes of teacher education especially, how we teach is what we teach. However, the standard of most college and university teaching seems to be that "just be clear" should suffice. The attitude prevails that everyone, including students, should focus on the material rather than the process of learning-on what to teach rather than how. Many professors may not realize that factors such as their personal expectations of students can powerfully influence student perceptions and performance. Many faculty members would find it disconcerting to know that how they teach is indeed what they teach, especially for future teachers in their courses. Nevertheless, what students retain often has less to do with the subject matter than learning what constitutes progress, how to attack a new problem, or what to do when they get stuck or frustrated. The "just be clear" philosophy ignores these human aspects and results in spoon-feeding students boiled-down facts.

Most science and mathematics faculty have heard that they should teach better, to the point of feeling harangued and harassed about it. K-12 reformers must recognize that most college and university faculty are neither lazy nor averse to teaching well, but they might not know how to do it.  Teacher education simply does not happen for those who teach in higher education. Although many campuses are implementing strategies to address this problem, much more needs to be done, especially in science and mathematics.

A great deal of teaching effort in the sciences and mathematics is for non-science majors. Higher education ascribes different purposes to science education for majors and non-majors. Not surprisingly then, individual faculty differ in their views of how to adjust to a cohort of incoming students through K-12 reforms than today's students.  Nonetheless, this chapter asserts that the majority of college and university faculty see in reform an opportunity to reinvigorate the goals and practice of science education for both for majors and non-majors in ways that will broaden and enrich our students' preparation for life in the next century.

Barriers to Change

The different ways in which the disciplines interpret the very nature of science may inhibit universities from implementing the integrated, interdisciplinary science instruction advocated by Project 2061. For scientists to become partners in a shared, common science curriculum for all students, they will need considerable convincing that their own disciplines are represented fairly and adequately. This disciplinary constraint is likely to loosen gradually during the coming years as the roles of teaching and research for university faculty reach a new balance.

College or university culture erects another set of barriers to change. In many large science departments, an instructional "pecking order" is observed: the most senior researchers teach graduate students; younger, active research faculty and older, formerly active researchers teach undergraduate majors; and those whose research careers have faltered handle the large introductory courses for non-majors. In some research-oriented universities, departmental courses for non-majors are viewed by both students and faculty as less attractive and less rigorous.  This self-fulfilling prophecy may lead professors to devote less effort to teaching them, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of science avoidance and poor student performance. In addition, the recognition and reward system in much of higher education favors research over innovative teaching. This is especially prevalent in science and engineering, where the added incentive of outside funding shifts the reward balance even further toward research.

The American tradition of physically and intellectually segregating the science education of teachers from the education of science professionals has severely limited opportunities for teachers-especially elementary teachers-to learn the content and practice of science. This segregation has also limited scientists' exposure to the K-12 curriculum and their understanding of the science knowledge-and misunderstandings-that college freshmen bring into their classes. There is also a nearly complete lack of contact between those who teach science in our K-12 schools and their counterparts in our colleges and universities, which renders significantly more difficult our task of changing higher education to connect with and help build a reformed K-12 science program.

Needed Changes in Admissions and Placement

The prospect of future students coming to higher education with a broader and more uniform knowledge of science raises several important admissions and placement issues described below.


For higher education to join forces with the K-12 reform movement, it will have to address seriously such questions as:

If higher education faculty really want to enlarged pool of undergraduates to enter some of the most elite laboratories and classrooms in our nation's colleges and universities, they must work toward admitting students prepared to be science literate.  This is true even if these students differ from traditional high-school honors students.  More importantly, faculty who have been concerned only with the traditional"good science student" will need to work with science majors who have increasingly diverse aspirations, including teaching, and willing to help them achieve their goals.


The prospect of future students coming to higher education with a broader and more uniform knowledge of science raises several important placement issues.  With successful K-12 reform, a single set of general education courses in science would meet the needs of all incoming students.  (AP [Advanced Placement] courses would have to adjust to these interdisciplinary general education courses as they become the higher education introductory norm.)  When most students are taking similar general education versus content-driven courses, the point at which students make the transition from "shopping" to committing to a major may be delayed.  Most science departments should welcome that change if it leads to increased numbers of able students choosing to major in their disciplines.

Finally, four-year colleges and universities are becoming increasingly competitive for the growing number of students-older students; those with greater financial needs; culturally and racially diverse students; and more first-generation, college-going students-who launch their higher education careers in community colleges. Four-year institutions should examine their transfer policies and practices to adjust to the changing market for their services, changes which K-12 educational reform will intensify. Higher education leaders can design vehicles to promote and sustain more regular communication between two- and four-year colleges and between colleges and K-12 schools.

Enrollment in Post-Secondary Education

Needed Changes in the Undergraduate Curriculum

The traditional departmental organization of the disciplines in higher education is likely to remain intact, with the scientific principles and methods central to each discipline retaining their integrity and distinctiveness. However, changes in content emphasis and in teaching style will be both necessary and desirable if higher education is committed to the goals of science education reform. Some critical elements in a new agenda for higher education are:

The following discussion examines each of these elements and points out some necessary changes that should take place in universities and colleges in order to accommodate the goals of science education reform.

Central Ideas and Connections in Science

Material that only a decade ago was taught in graduate courses has moved into undergraduate curricula, adding to the specialized nature of science programs for majors. Inevitably, a commitment to fostering scientific habits of mind, focusing on essential principles in science, and exploring links among the sciences leaves less time and space for traditional content-laden courses in those programs.

If in their first two years, undergraduate science and engineering majors study a common core of physical and life sciences heavily laced with interconnections and links to the social sciences and humanities, they will be better equipped to choose and succeed in a science discipline.  They will also be better prepared to function as professionals in the world of work, which is not neatly divided into disciplines.  For departments that insist on maintaining topical coverage in their current upper division courses, bridge courses might be used to fill the perceived gaps created by omitting specific topics from reformed science courses.

New multidisciplinary programs will continue to emerge-just as biochemistry did within the last generation and environmental and energy studies did within the last decade. Science educators should view the practitioners of these fields as models of cross-disciplinary scientific practice and instruction. If universities support experimentation with innovative teaching methods-multidisciplinary programs; team teaching; collaborative learning; simulation; multimedia and computer-supported instruction; and exploration of the interaction of science, technology, and human values-they will necessarily stimulate more conversation among the disciplines and engender still more interdisciplinary collaboration in teaching and scholarship.

Teaching Approaches

To expand the pool of potentially successful recruits to the scientific/ technical professions, curricula and instruction need to reflect the variety of learning styles present among our students. Although the recommendations on teaching and learning in Science for All Americans are geared to K-12 education some of the suggestions have value for higher education. For example, college faculty would agree that all students need genuine experiences grappling with scientific questions, collecting data, constructing models, guessing, estimating, making mistakes, recognizing the unanswerable, and other activities that go beyond calculating solutions to routine sets of problems. Thus, undergraduates in general, and future teachers in particular, should have a wide range of learning experiences and should also come to appreciate how each teacher selects and adapts teaching approaches.

Science for Majors and Nonmajors

To change science education for majors and nonmajors alike, our approach to science curricula should stress the important central concepts of science, their observational basis, and the history of their development. This will require adding topics that reach outside the traditional domains of individual science disciplines.

Most campuses entertained vigorous discussions of general or liberal education in the 1980s. Project 30, which brought colleges of science, education, and liberal arts together to explore general education (see Blueprints' Resources for a description of Project 30) and a report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1990) that addressed the issue of liberal arts courses in the context of the education of future teachers were notable contributions to this debate. Science for All Americans provides a framework that can invigorate and inform a renewed discussion of what an appropriate science and technology component in liberal education might look like. The available resources in colleges and universities provide ample opportunities to involve students with historic and societal perspectives in science that will prepare them for a lifelong pursuit of science literacy. A convincing case can be made that a defined but varied selection of liberal education science courses can satisfy the science requirement for science and non-science majors.

Courses Taken by Non-Majors

Attending to the needs of prospective science teachers, science majors, and general education in this way makes sense for several reasons. First, if we do our jobs right, there will be people who were planning to be teachers who decide to become scientists, and vice versa. Second, people who are neither professional educators nor scientists should nevertheless be science literate. We should insist that whatever we call good science for all Americans will be good for future teachers-and that good science for future teachers will be good for all Americans.

Needed changes in the Education of College Faculty

Transforming the pedagogy in the average college classroom to promote the kind of learning called for by Project 2061 requires attention to teacher education for higher education faculty. Many of the ideas outlined for K-12 teachers in Science for All Americans and Benchmarks for Science Literacy [Benchmarks] (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 1993) can be adapted for higher education faculty.

In helping college faculty learn to teach, colleges and universities should pay particular attention to three key principles: 1) it is important to create an emotional climate that rewards creativity, avoids dogmatism, builds on students' knowledge, supports the roles of women and minorities, and expects success; 2) teaching should involve activity and feedback; and 3) teaching is a powerful way to learn. These ideas are discussed in the following sections.

Learning to Build Success for All

Given that the nation's K-12 school population has a majority of students of color and females-a proportion that will grow to at least two-thirds in the next few decades-successful reform hinges on our ability to address equity issues and eliminate barriers to science for women, minorities, and students of low socioeconomic status.  In addition to improving science literacy, reform of higher education must draw into the science pipeline groups who have been seriously underrepresented in scientific endeavors in the past.

Minority Enrollment in K-12 Schools

Colleges with limited resources that undertake reform may fall behind the efforts of well-funded universities. At schools with fewer resources, reform may actually exacerbate resource inequities, improving opportunities for a small number of students, but not for others. State university branch campuses, community and technical colleges, and historically Black colleges and universities have led efforts to diversify the student body and encourage nontraditional students to pursue scientific careers. They have been the vanguard in designing special programs with a strong record for producing minority scientists, and they have committed admission and tuition support to students who show promise of succeeding in scientific fields. Unfortunately, these programs have served a limited number of students because of scarce resources. It is essential that we respond with higher priority to the needs of schools with high concentrations of minority and lower socioeconomic status students if we are to achieve a level playing field.

Colleges and Universities Awarding the Most Bachelor's Degrees in Engineering to Minorities

Learning to Engage Students Actively and Use Feedback

If science literacy is to become a reality, students must significantly increase their knowledge of science each year. As professors calibrate expectations, set emotional climates, select appropriate activities, and give constructive feedback, it is absolutely vital that they pay careful attention to students' developmental readiness to advance their knowledge and skills. How can this be accomplished?

Types of Instruction at Research University

Learning experiences should have a balance of activity, reflection, and practice. If science professors reflect on the way they work and learn, they can better serve their students. In their day-to-day work, scientists ask themselves questions, devise explanations, perform experiments, and assimilate information from interactions with others. Students need to engage in these strategies as they develop their knowledge.

On the other hand, through years of training, scientists have actually internalized many active learning strategies:  for example, working scientists rarely set out to memorize a formula. But students sometimes need to memorize because they may not yet be able to derive a formula based on their knowledge. Whereas many undergraduates are, at best, just beginning to acquire this level of sophistication, many faculty cannot imagine ever having been without it.

Rather than keeping students at their initial level of understanding or expecting them to suddenly jump to a higher one, faculty should instead think of "ramping students upwards." This can be accomplished by building on students' science knowledge, helping them to learn, and explicitly telling them that they will be expected to climb increasingly on their own as the course progresses.

How far upward should prospective science teachers climb this ramp? The answer depends partly on what level of understanding is necessary to enable them as teachers to continually expand their scientific knowledge. Prospective science teachers should gain an appreciation for the sweep of science and have some authentic, in-depth, and positive experiences with important concepts of science.

Learning to Teach

To encourage all students to act as teachers, professors sometimes set up peer study groups, identify and train undergraduate teaching assistants or mentors, or incorporate student presentations of course material.  Some colleges have developed "sidecar courses" parallel with usual science courses, in which students meet with the professor to discuss how the course is being taught. In some universities, graduate courses in teaching and learning have grown into new degree programs for people interested in science education.

However interested in encouraging their students to teach, however, college faculty sometimes neglect to reflect on their own teaching.  Professors should be more involved with training graduate students and junior faculty as they begin to teach. Asking faculty to help others is not only flattering but it also makes them more articulate and reflective about education. It exposes seasoned faculty to fresh pedagogical ideas that younger colleagues bring, including those of initiatives like Project 2061. Teaching graduate students and junior faculty to teach rather than teaching them to learn would encourage professors to think of themselves as teachers and become more aware of their own instructional techniques.

Collaborating on and Sustaining Reform

By making K-12 science instruction more broadly appealing and effective, reform expands the pool of future scientists and science teachers. Taking a similarly broad and inclusive approach to science instruction at the collegiate level addresses the retention problem. Scientists and engineers in higher education should-as acts of professional self-interest-support K-12 science education reform and re-examine their own methods of science teaching in light of it.

By collaborating with K-12 schools and aligning the practice of science education in higher education with standards-based goals, colleges and universities can reclaim public confidence. School/college alliances, such as K-16 councils and the like, are a means to aid coordinated reform of our schools and colleges (Atkin & Atkin, 1989). These councils can explore issues such as technology access for rural and urban schools, mentoring programs in science and mathematics, and access to resources for teaching science. If these alliances and collaboratives are expanded, replicated, and supported, they can bring colleges and universities directly into an active role in K-12 educational reform.

Arguably, K-12 reform will help produce students who are more science literate and eager to achieve in science. The desire for a college to increase its "market share" by attracting these students will be powerful motivation, especially for under-enrolled science departments. Rethinking the admissions process might then represent the first step on the part of colleges to "buy in" to reform, and may serve as a focal point for encouraging curriculum discussions between the K-12 and higher education communities.

Building on K-12 Reforms

If colleges and universities eventually respond to K-12 reform, several organizations and strategies can ensure that the effective teaching and learning techniques that produce science literate high school graduates are sustained through college. Groups whose support is key to successful reform include: 1) professional and licensing associations set the standards for disciplinary content in their fields; 2) the business community requires a broadly trained and science literate work force; and 3) the research community validates the success of undergraduate students who acquire new science competencies and move to the next educational level.

To overcome the tendency to "teach as we have been taught" and develop new teaching models, higher education should look to centers for teaching and learning such as those at Harvard University (Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, 1993) and the collaborative project at the University of Wisconsin (Wisconsin Center for Educational Research, 1996). Both of these programs illustrate how research universities have engaged their faculty in reexamining their teaching strategies and experimenting with new techniques.

Colleges and universities can advocate innovative, research-based instructional techniques and materials by developing models and sponsoring regional workshops for school and university faculty. Because college and university faculty have nearly complete freedom to choose both their content and instructional techniques, they can be leaders in innovative instruction. Collaboration between K-12 and college science instructors should be a central component in these efforts. Working with colleagues in both K-12 and higher education, college faculty can experiment with a full range of pedagogical research and instructional technology, and can model the teacher-as-researcher role for their K-12 colleagues.

Professional societies and their umbrella organizations can educate their members about science education reform and enlist their support, nationally and locally, to reform science education at all levels. Because many higher education faculty have primary allegiance to their discipline rather than their home institution, science educators must enlist the support of disciplinary professional societies to engage scientists and engineers from higher education faculty as well as industrial and government research laboratories in reform efforts.


Change does not come easily, especially to higher education. If science education reform is to succeed with higher education, not only must university faculty interact with K-12 colleagues on an ongoing basis, but a larger number of committed faculty and administrators have to become involved.

For higher education to participate fully in science reform, university faculty must change their outlook on teaching. When faculty show respect for students interested in teaching careers, encourage some of their best and brightest to think about careers in K-12 teaching, take seriously their role in developing science and mathematics teachers, and become involved in important new research that can help science teachers, they will be full participants in the education reform agenda.
References and Bibliography
Chapter 11 Family and Community


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American Association for the Advancement of Science
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