An Examination Of NSF?s Programs In Undergraduate Education

Norman L Fortenberry


Stimulated, in part, by the release of a report by the Boyer Commission of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching the National Science Foundation has conducted a review of its undergraduate programs as part of the process of developing a strategic plan for addressing shortcomings in the nation?s undergraduate programs.
The Carnegie Report makes ten recommendations for improving undergraduate education. The publicity attending release of the report implied that undergraduate students are short-changed at the 125 research universities. However, the report itself includes a number of vignettes called ?Signs of Change? that describe examples of outstanding programs for enhancing undergraduate education at these same institutions. Each highlighted program illustrates one or more ways of carrying out the ten recommended changes in undergraduate education. Many of the programs cited received at least partial support from the Foundation.
The Carnegie Report does not speak to the state of undergraduate education at comprehensive universities, baccalaureate (four-year) institutions, and community colleges (two-year institutions). Recent data show that 84% of all undergraduates are enrolled at these institutions and that 68% of all baccalaureate degrees are awarded by comprehensive universities and baccalaureate (four-year) institutions. Because faculty from all types of higher education institutions are eligible for NSF programs, NSF is having an impact on undergraduate education that extends well beyond the 125 institutions discussed in the Carnegie Report.
Two important reports pre-date the Carnegie Report in calling for reform in SMET undergraduate education-- Shaping the Future: New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology (NSF 96-139) and From Analysis to Action: Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology (National Research Council, 1996). Both reports raise important issues about undergraduate SMET education and recommend ways in which to correct them. A third report, Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology (National Research Council, 1999), post-dates the Carnegie Report, builds on previous work, and was written to assist top-level academic officers, faculty, and departments in the critical process of institutionalizing improvements in undergraduate SMET education, and to encourage members of the higher education SMET community to reflect on issues important to undergraduate education. Many of NSF?s programs already encourage changes in line with the recommendations in these reports.
Over the past several years, the Foundation has been implementing strategies to enhance the effectiveness of its undergraduate programming by integrating research and education, laying the foundation for education reform, and increasing collaboration across organization boundaries. The new strategies emphasizing undergraduate education take into account and explicitly enhance, the interrelated roles of all segments of the preK-graduate educational enterprise. With sufficient resources, NSF can both strengthen its core programs and address unmet needs and opportunities. Unmet opportunities can be grouped into five areas: 1) systemic reform of curricula and institutions; 2) high-quality instruction by faculty; 3) educational research, materials, and methods; 4) emphasis on meeting the needs of diverse student populations; and 5) student support.

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JSTEM. ISSN: 1557-5284