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National Science Foundation - Celebrating 50 Years

Anniversary News

Anniversary Activities




Science Education for a Diverse Population

Fifty Years
Of Supporting

Established in 1950, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is the federal government's only agency dedicated to the support of education and fundamental research in all scientific and engineering disciplines. NSF's mission is to ensure that the United States maintains leadership in scientific and engineering disciplines, in scientific discovery and in the development of new technologies. NSF has achieved this mission repeatedly over the past 50 years.

This series of articles highlight key advances in science and engineering enabled by NSF support that have had a beneficial impact on humankind. This article outlines the agency's educational role and the foundation for those advances. NSF's goal is to provide the United States' population, in all its diversity, with the basis of a solid education in science, engineering, technology, and mathematics.

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This advertorial appears as part of a long-standing partnership between NSF and Discover Magazine. We encourage you to visit Discover Magazine at

NSF believes that all people have the ability and the necessity to learn rigorous science, mathematics and technology and supports programs to significantly increase the participation of historically underserved populations in these areas. At the elementary and secondary education levels, NSF invests in programs designed to improve student achievement in mathematics and science, particularly for those that have not traditionally been exposed to them.

Judges judge students science projects; caption is below.
Native Knowledge Perspective: Alaska
native elders judge students' science projects.

Photo by Paula Elmes, Alaska Native Knowledge Network.

This approach will benefit the nation in two ways. It will give all students the scientific information they need to make educated decisions about complex technical issues that will determine the nation's future. And it will increase the pool from which will emerge the scientists and technologists essential to that future.

In order to encourage institutions to implement this philosophy, NSF has developed a "systemic approach," which aligns all elements of the educational system, i.e. curriculum, instruction, assessment, policy, resources and broad-based support to produce the desired outcome of enhanced student achievement. The agency judges the success of its supported educational programs by their impact on the understanding of science, mathematics, and technology achieved by all students, not only gifted students.

Two programs established in the mid-nineties illustrate the goal of NSF-supported educational projects. The Urban Systemic Program(s) focuses on students in city school districts, that comprise more than half of the country's total school population. The Rural Systemic Initiative (RSI), by contrast, focuses on smaller numbers of rural poor who have typically had limited access to high quality mathematics and science. These efforts have the common goal of improving student outcomes. NSF expects the programs to produce higher achievement scores in science and mathematics and to encourage more students to take, and successfully complete, more rigorous courses. In some cases this means that more students are enrolled in advanced placement courses in science and mathematics, resulting in a higher proportion of students successfully completing courses that demand a reasonably sophisticated understanding.

The Urban Systemic Program targets inner city school systems that have historically offered few courses in advanced mathematics or science. NSF expects its five-year awards to stimulate significant changes in the policies and curricula offered by school systems. The agency does not specify the exact strategies to be used to bring about the changes it requires. However, school systems that receive the awards should implement higher-quality, standards-based curricula in science and mathematics, and they should make efforts to train teachers to teach those curricula. School authorities might choose to eliminate certain courses in general math and consumer math that do not challenge students. They may also consider reorganizing students' days to permit more time for scientific investigations that do not fit comfortably into 55-minute lesson periods. More importantly, NSF encourages school systems to enter partnerships with parents, local technology businesses, and nearby community colleges and universities. These partnerships help schools to improve their teaching of science and math.

The urban efforts have already produced some successes. Almost 90 percent of school systems in the program have implemented standards-based curricula in science and math. After three years of participation, 96 percent of math teachers and 96 percent of science teachers in the program have had extensive professional development in teaching the standards-based curriculum. Among schools that used the same method of assessing their progress for three straight years, 88 percent showed improvement in science and 85 percent improved in mathematics. NSF-supported urban schools are showing significant increases in students taking Advanced Placement courses. By example, Los Angeles saw a 53 percent increase in participating schools compared to a 17 percent increase in non-participating schools. A smaller California city in the program -- Paramount -- now requires students to take Algebra I in the 6th, 7th, or 8th grade. This establishes a foundation for student to study geometry as early as the 8th grade and algebra-based physics in the 10th grade.

Among the NSF rural efforts are the Tribal Colleges Rural Systemic Initiatives that promote the teaching of science, technology, and mathematics to Native Americans who have had scant exposure to the subjects in the past. A collaborative effort among 20 Indian nations, the initiative applies a standards-based curriculum for the participating school.

The RSI program has also produced notable successes. At the start of the program, for example, few teachers in the tribal school districts were familiar with teaching standards in science and mathematics. Now 85 percent of the systems use standards. While a few districts offer advanced placement courses, many more now offer advanced courses, such as calculus, than in the past. Several districts have started partnerships in which instructors from the tribal community colleges help to teach mathematics and science at the high school level.

In the Rural Systemic Initiative Program, systemic reform efforts within the Native Communities are designing more effective approaches by focusing on the use of the Native knowledge base, which seeks to integrate traditional environmental and cultural knowledge with the teaching of standards-based western science. For example, many Native Alaskan cultures have their own star maps. The maps serve to indicate the timing of hunts and help individuals to navigate across the featureless terrain in cold dark winters. The Alaska Rural Systemic Initiative (AKRSI) has lead this endeavor by developing Alaska standards for culturally responsive schools. It incorporates within formal teaching some of the insights Native Alaskans have gained into their unique environment during the several millennia in which they have occupied the region. These standards have been adopted by the State Department of Education and will impact schools statewide by integrating traditional knowledge into present-day teaching of mathematics and science. This approach encourages teachers to learn to link two separate knowledge systems into an interdependent learning system.

Much remains to be done. But NSF's support of educational programs has started a process that will ensure that every American student receives a solid foundation in science, technology, and mathematics.

Environment Nanotechnology Astronomy Info.Tech. Education Biocomplexity
mountainsquantum dotobservatoryglobe-mouse montage2 studentsbirds over water
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Last Modified: Mar 28, '03