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Committee on Energy and Natural Resources U.S. Senate Hearing on S. 2197

  • Date: 02/15/2006
  • Author: Dr. Luis M. Proenza (President, The University of Akron)
  • Location: written testimony, Washington, DC
  • Mr. Chairman, Members of the Committee, thank you for your invitation to provide testimony in support of this vitally important legislation.

    I am Luis Proenza, President of The University of Akron. I also am privileged to serve on the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) and on the executive committee of the Council on Competitiveness - bodies that have made recommendations that are directly relevant to the matters under your consideration. Many of you already are familiar with these recommendations, which are reflected in the President's American Competitiveness Initiative and incorporated in other pending legislation, such as the Ensign - Lieberman National Innovation Act of 2005.

    I expect you have asked me here today because of my role as chairman of the Science and Mathematics Education Task Force (SMETF), which is a subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB). However, in the spirit of full disclosure, I must tell you that, because the work of our task force is still in progress, the remarks I will make today must be treated strictly as my own. My comments will naturally reflect much of the work we have done to date and, of course, we will be pleased to share the final report with this committee as soon as it is completed. From my review of the PACE language, I might add that the work of SMETF appears to be most closely related to sections 3171, 3175, 3181 and 3195 of PACE-Energy and sections 161, 211 and 231 of PACE-Education.

    Although the national laboratories conduct a substantial proportion of the nation's basic research in the physical sciences and engineering, as well as a healthy mix of other basic and applied sciences (e.g., biological and environmental sciences), the Department of Energy's role in the scientific leadership of the nation is generally underappreciated. To carry out its mission, DOE requires substantial manpower resources, which is one reason why the Department's involvement in the education pipeline must be understood better, supported adequately and leveraged. I am pleased that DOE's vital role in STEM education was given a clear legislative mandate in section 1102 of the recently passed Energy Policy Act of 2005 and that the Department's Office of Science, led by Under Secretary-designee Ray Orbach, was tasked to begin implementation of this section. I also note that former Secretary Abrams, who appointed SMETF, and Secretary Bodman, have expressed strong interest in ensuring the Department's participation in enhancing our nation's STEM education.

    Much of what we have learned about competitiveness and innovation in recent years certainly speaks to the value of leveraging resources and to ensuring that the various components of our national innovation ecosystem are optimally linked, coordinated and enhanced. Thus, I am pleased that you have asked me to specifically focus on how we "would leverage Department of Energy resources, including personnel and equipment at the National Laboratories, to improve mathematics, science, and engineering education at all levels". That is precisely the task that SMETF has had under review during the last 14 months.

    The National Laboratories represent exceptional scientific and engineering facilities and talent - 17 geographically distributed laboratories of unparalleled strength and importance, particularly for the physical sciences and engineering, but also for a substantial mix of other basic and applied sciences (e.g., biological and environmental sciences). Such major resources are assets that can and should be accessed in support of strengthening STEM education. Leveraging is imperative because the labs must balance between their obvious and synergistic capacity to support STEM education and their need to maintain their mission focus. And this means we cannot leverage by simply increasing access. Rather, we must create leverage by multiplying the impact of those who come to the labs - by enhancing the capacity of STEM teachers to impact thousands upon thousands of students. By supporting the professional development of teachers, the labs can, as they have for many years, substantially enhance the educational competencies of teachers in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. These professional development experiences enable teachers to become conveyors of STEM expertise. And, having selected teachers as the means for exerting leverage, we also should determine where such teachers can have the most impact. Ample evidence suggests that the greatest impact that teachers can have is on middle school students, because that is the time when student performance and interest begins to drop and when students become especially vulnerable to the lack of strong educational experiences.

    The DOE laboratories are a geographically distributed network of resources with great potential to provide teachers with authentic experiences in the scientific enterprise - thereby transforming science teachers into teaching scientists. The challenge is to leverage these unique resources - the national laboratories - as forcefully as possible through an intensive set of research experiences that yield teaching scientists capable of engaging students in STEM disciplines. We have found excellent STEM educational programs throughout the laboratory system, programs that lead to genuine transformations in teachers' knowledge and enthusiasm for science. Moreover, our findings suggest that it is during adolescence when students present the most significant needs as well as opportunities. Thus, we will likely suggest the creation of a Teaching Scientist Professional Development Program that reaches cohorts of middle school teachers drawn from the geographical areas served by each laboratory - a hub-and-spoke strategy. The basic design elements build on DOE's current Laboratory Science Teacher Professional Development Program (LSTPD) and entail intensive four- to eight-week summer internships spanning three years for each cohort. The plan also would call for Department-wide coordination of essential program features already in use, while also making appropriate allowances for local adaptations suitable to each laboratory. Continuous formative assessments and formal evaluations, drawn from the LSTPD experience, would guide further refinement of the program and provide ongoing evidence of effectiveness.

    Leverage is not only essential in the context of the labs' mission, but also provides a useful metaphor. The leveraging force is that of our national laboratories. The fulcrum point at which this leverage is exerted is the professional development of "teaching scientists" through intensive, transformative laboratory research experience. In turn, the effect is multiplied upon the millions of students in our nation's middle schools, the critical stage during which students develop and sustain interest in science and mathematics, and when "teaching scientists" thus can have the greatest impact.

    Across many, if not all, of our federal agencies there are other important STEM education initiatives. During the work of the task force, we requested and received several presentations, which revealed considerable variety of STEM educational programs across agencies. Among them, we saw spectacular examples of curriculum development, but not every agency or organization is well placed to take on the task of curriculum development. Nor are many school systems or individual teachers prepared to optimally integrate these materials into the classroom. We also saw opportunities for new endeavors that would be useful in their own right, while also supporting coordination. For example, the National Science Education Resources Center at the Smithsonian is in the early stages of developing a Web site of resources for STEM education, which might be the basis for more substantive interagency efforts. Finally, while many STEM education resources are readily accessible through the Internet, it is less clear that these are having measurable impact on the condition of STEM education in America.

    My colleagues and I have discussed the leadership role that is needed among federal agencies in leveraging major scientific and engineering resources, such as the national laboratories, for STEM education and we believe that DOE is well poised in this regard. The Department of Energy can and should take on a leadership role in the development of educational efforts in cooperation with other agencies. In addition, DOE should encourage STEM education partnerships among agencies, businesses, universities, and national organizations. Of course, DOE's ability to assume this role clearly depends on interagency discussions and the development of shared resources, both virtual and programmatic.

    The leveraging opportunities associated with the national laboratories extend beyond their ability to bring teachers or students into contact with individual scientists or research programs at each of the 17 facilities. The laboratories, for example, also are home to some of our nation's most advanced computational resources, which are capable of creating powerful simulation environments. These tools are key ingredients in American competitiveness. Computational tools have become essential to research, made it easier to bring concepts to the marketplace quickly, and greatly increased productivity in both manufacturing and service industries throughout the economy. In work we have done through the Council on Competitiveness' High-Performance Computing Initiative, I personally have seen how some of these facilities, such as those at the Sandia National Laboratory, can assist industry in performing complex simulations to support improved manufacturing competitiveness.

    These tools can also increase the productivity of the process of education and make concepts in science and mathematics more compelling and more accessible for a wide range of students. All of us are now familiar with how movie animation and video games have created compelling experiences built around simulated landscapes, cities and complex processes brought to life through high-performance computing. Modern personal computers and video game consoles now deliver computing power comparable to that of devices called supercomputers just a few years ago.

    These powerful simulation capabilities, thus, hold another leveraging opportunity for DOE - namely, that of creating the sort of exciting and captivating interactive features that make possible the delivery of exploration and discovery-based learning tools long recommended by educational scientists. For example, agencies such as NASA and NOAA have taught students about space or deep ocean exploration through their Challenger and Jason programs. Now, STEM simulation tools can be created at a price that becomes affordable to the large number of students and teachers who cannot otherwise participate directly in experiences at the laboratories. Engaging simulations can connect what would otherwise be abstract concepts in the physical sciences, engineering and mathematics to simulations of real-world applications. DOE is in an excellent position to facilitate this by leveraging its subject matter expertise and strong record in computation. Even with comparatively simple instructional simulation tools, it should be possible to demonstrate a 30% reduction in learning time.

    Tools that can increase the productivity of our educational system and tailor learning to the unique interests and needs of a diverse student body are essential if America is to produce the talent needed to ensure American competitiveness. But capturing the potential of simulations and other information technologies will require significant and sustained investment in research, demonstration and evaluation of such tools. A strategy for achieving this is contained in another piece of pending legislation: S. 1023, the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust (DO IT). Although the PACE legislation you are considering proposes much-needed strategic advancements in STEM education and support for the physical sciences, those investments - in my judgment - would be greatly enhanced if we find a way to fill a large hole in our national research portfolio, namely in the support of research into innovation in the process of education itself and a careful assessment of what works and what doesn't work. That is the purpose of S. 1023, DO IT.

    During the course of our work, SMETF heard of how little of what has been shown to work is actually in practice and how much of what is being done is lacking in assessment of its effectiveness. As a nation, we currently do not support much in the way of research into educational and training effectiveness, and yet we are now in a global labor market that puts a premium on information-technology-based jobs where our systems of education and training must be the bedrock, the very infrastructure, of our economic competitiveness. The fact that modern computers offer the potential to implement sophisticated approaches to instruction in STEM has both changed the rules and raised the penalty for inaction.

    Quite simply, we must enhance the effectiveness and productivity of our systems of education and training and ensure that they can benefit from the same revolutionary broadband technologies that have transformed our communications, defense, commercial and entertainment sectors. To achieve this, I urge your serious consideration and support of the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust (DO IT) as an integral part of the PACE Act's strategy for strengthening American innovation.

    As a member of the Digital Promise Coalition's Leadership Council, I have supported the DO IT legislation, S.1023 introduced by Senators Dodd, Snowe, Durbin and Burns. That legislation was based on a comprehensive research and development learning roadmap that was submitted to Congress two years ago. DO IT would be a form of venture capital fund to support the research necessary to create new teaching and learning tools using advanced technologies such as highly interactive virtual reality, simulation, embedded intelligence and one-on-one tutoring. It is time to harness the power of these tools for teaching and learning, especially in abstract areas of mathematics and science. We know that an integrated use of advanced technologies can make learning faster, more efficient, and allow a higher proportion of students to reach greater levels of competence. Our competitor nations are already far ahead of us in this area of research and in digitizing high-quality educational content for new educational technology applications. I feel strongly that no national strategy for reinvigorating our systems of research and innovation would be complete without something like the DO IT component.

    In summary, Mr. Chairman, the work of SMETF will undoubtedly support the PACE legislation and we look forward to sharing a copy of our final report.

    In closing, allow me to acknowledge my colleagues in SMETF. In particular, I want to thank Dr. Robert Calfee, vice chair of the task force, for his dedicated and insightful comments as well as for his many substantive contributions. We are most grateful for all the dedicated and talented staff in DOE and other agencies that took time to inform us of all the ongoing educational activities within the agencies and had the patience to answer our many questions and help us to understand the feasibility of the proposals we are considering. In particular, we wish to acknowledge the support of John Giordano and Peter Faletra.

    Thank you for your attention; this concludes my testimony. 

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