Context and Challenges: A New Era for Undergraduate
Dr. Joseph Bordogna
Acting Deputy Director
NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION
Council on Undergraduate Research
National Institutes of Health
Natcher Conference Center Auditorium
April 11, 1997
It's a pleasure to join Ruth and Alan and all of you
here this morning. I want to thank Royce, Tom, and
the CUR for giving us this chance to meet. They stressed
that this was meant to be a true dialogue, so I intend
to adhere to the advice on speeches that the comedian
George Jessel would often give. He said, "If you haven't
struck oil in your first three minutes, stop boring!"
There is thus the chance that my remarks may be somewhat
briefer than I had planned.
I know you have a demanding schedule of speakers,
workshops, and discussions over the next two days.
I intend to use my time to offer some overarching
comments which I hope will provide a context for some
of the program directions and priorities that will
be discussed in greater detail in other sessions.
For this reason, I have chosen to entitle my remarks,
Context and Challenges: A New Era for Undergraduate
Research. Although many of us use terms like "post-cold
war economy" and the "information age" with frequency
and ease, we have not necessarily paid enough attention
to the far reaching implications of their meaning
- particularly for research and education at the undergraduate
level. Indeed, I would submit that we can't even be
sure if these are the right terms to use.
The end of the Cold War, just seven years ago, was
unpredicted. It did not even show up on the radar
screens of foreign policy experts and political gurus.
It caught the world by happy surprise. No one, however,
had imagined or planned for a global landscape without
the Free World versus Iron Curtain rivalry of the
previous forty years. And, certainly no one had given
serious thought to how this enormous change would
influence the way we prepare our youth for the workforce.
Among other things, the end of this anomalous period
in world history set an already complex world economy
into a state of heightened transition. We are currently
immersed in a somewhat volatile but also opportunistic
period that will likely continue for quite some time.
The new openness in the world political and economic
arena has created a system "in flux" where different
leaders, as well as different losers, can emerge.
America has grappled with the threat of Japanese economic
competition for over a decade but still remains fairly
unsophisticated in seeing those trends in other nations.
I think we are currently underestimating the technological
leadership coming from companies in South Korea, Singapore,
Malaysia, and Taiwan. And perhaps our most dangerous
myopia is in relation to the behemoth capabilities
of an emerging China.
This transition period is also characterized by an
explosion in the form and function of what we have
termed "information technologies." The emerging economies
of southeast Asia have quickly grasped the value of
these technologies as a critical driver for technological
and manufacturing capability. Needless to say, they
are heavily focused on training so-called "information
engineers" or "knowledge workers" for this new direction.
In order for America to compete in the wake of such
competition, we must forge a "critical mass" of knowledge,
skill, and infrastructure. It must include public
and private schools, colleges and universities of
all types, industry and small business, government
at all levels, and the talented personnel from each
sector. It must be guided by a collective vision of
where we need to go and a collaborative spirit of
how we can get there.
In essence, it means going back to the precepts of
Vannevar Bush that we have either ignored or forgotten.
At the beginning of Bush's 1945 report, Science:
The Endless Frontier, he laid down a concise
vision. He said, "Science can be effective in the
national welfare only as a member of a team." I think
that his words have become increasingly prescient.
It does not matter that we now talk of partnerships
instead of Bush's "teams." What does matter is that
we recognize the need for collective effort, for collaborations
where each partner has something to offer and each
has something to learn.
We no longer live in an era where academe can provide
an autonomous career sheltered from society's needs
and problems. We no longer live in a time when U.S.
industry believes it has nothing to learn from other
nations or other sectors, an attitude that persisted
for too long. We no longer live in the luxury of succeeding
on first-rate higher education and mediocre K-12 education.
We no longer live in the industrial age when a modestly-skilled
assembly-line workforce could propel the nation.
And, we can no longer expect public support for science
and engineering research in the form of a blank check
and an undefined agenda. Well, maybe a modest blank
check here or there, once in a while, based on partnered
trust, but certainly not an undefined agenda - and
certainly not an agenda that overlooks the natural
linkages between research and education.
My generation of engineers and scientists was among
the first to flourish under the new and generous government
support of R&D at the start of the Cold War. One
might even label that first-time historical period
of serious federal funding as a time of public innocence.
Most funds were appropriated, explicitly and implicitly,
under the rubric of national security. That was often
the sole dictate for the research - whether or not
we as individuals felt otherwise. Many researchers
were supported to pursue their scientific curiosity
in increasingly narrow specialties. America had ample
resources to parcel out for any and all science and
engineering, and the belief was, the more the better
to keep the country safer. Those days are gone.
Today, those providing the funds not only will require
more accountability from researchers but there is
increasing pressure to use scarce public funds solely
for the support of public goals. With the disappearance
of the Cold War geopolitical threat, federal research
dollars are increasingly be viewed as a quantifiable
Bush envisioned it this way from the start, but the
Cold War postponed that level of accountability for
four decades. Of course, Bush had the "long view"
in mind vis-a-vis the public good. His view did anticipate
- and expect - societally beneficial outcomes. On
this issue, it is vital that we recognize that honest
partnering in pursuit of those outcomes can also yield
the flexibility to follow paths of discovery and learning
opened by serendipity.
The vast shifts in global political alignment, economic
expansion, and their accompanying social change are
already creating "domino activity" in government,
in industry, and slowly in our colleges and universities.
This is, I believe, just the beginning, and information
technologies will provide a hastening catalyst.
We are living in the infancy of what scholars and
song writers all term the "Information Age," despite
the fact that there are no adequate definitions of
what an information age means. We may, in fact, face
an era quite different from the word "information"
that we are using with impunity. The period before
us is much more than computing power, digital transmission,
global communication, and multimedia integration.
If you follow the goings-on at NSF, you'll know that
we are using the term, "knowledge and distributed
intelligence" to describe this emerging era. This
is our way of capturing the fact that knowledge is
becoming available to anyone, anywhere, anytime, and
that power, information, and responsibility are moving
away from centralized control to the individual.
Information systems and learning tools are powerful
but still somewhat enigmatic mechanisms. We know what
they can do today but we cannot actually imagine what
they will enable us to do tomorrow.
We do know from the history of medical imaging systems,
the Internet, the World Wide Web, and countless other
technological marvels that academic science and engineering
has helped us develop the most visionary applications
of the new tools and technologies. I'm sure everyone
in this audience takes special note of the fact that
Marc Andreessen, the co-founder of Netscape Communications,
developed the concept of the Web browser while working
on an undergraduate research project at the University
of Illinois' National Center for Supercomputing Applications.
This is just one of many examples that testifies to
the importance of research at both the undergraduate
and graduate levels, particularly in this era of knowledge
and distributed intelligence - or whatever we wind
up calling it.
The convergence of insights from studies in human
cognition, linguistics, neurobiology, the science
of computer- communication, and other fields will
contribute to and shape what we do with these emerging
capabilities. I think few would doubt that these integrated
information forces will have a powerful impact on
both the economics and the sociology of the nation.
It is no overstatement to say that the term "potential"
has never been as meaningful as it is today. Potential
conveys possibility, opportunity, and capability -
all of which exist in abundance as we enter this era
of knowledge and distributed intelligence. Browsers
- be they Mosaic, Netscape, Explorer, or others -
have transformed the Internet from an obscure research
tool to something a five-year-old can "surf." Search
engines such as Altavista and Yahoo now help people
control the flood of information unleashed by the
Web - though they are far from perfect.
It is clear that what we are seeing today is only
the beginning. Supercomputers are now breaking the
teraflop barrier. Today's experimental networks -
such as the NSF-supported very high speed Backbone
Network Service (vNBS) - transmit data in excess of
600 Megabits per second (Mbps), a twelve fold increase
over current Internet operating speeds.
If history is any guide, it won't take long for these
capabilities to reach the typical user. When combined
with technologies such as palmtops, handhelds, intelligent
agents, and omnipresent sensors, the potential before
us takes on an entirely new dimension.
Information and knowledge would be available in forms
that make it easier for everyone to use effectively
- voice, video, text, holograms, to name but a few
of a universe of possibilities. Will we develop new
ways to express and unleash our creative talents -
talents that are now limited by our ability to interface
via a keyboard and mouse? What tools will enable us
to control and master this ultra-rapid flow of information?
Will having the proverbial Library of Congress in
your pocket be a blessing or a burden?
The answers to these questions begin with us. Our
efforts and our leadership can transform this immense,
unprecedented, and somewhat intimidating potential
into true progress, economic opportunity, social gain,
and rising living standards for human civilization.
Step number one toward success in this endeavor rests
with our efforts in science and engineering education.
Engineering and science education has become much
more than a four year bachelor's degree or seven year
Ph.D. It now requires developing our ability to strengthen
and continually refresh our talents for innovation
and creativity. Professional societies will need to
assume greater responsibility for enabling their members
to thrive through radically changing professional
landscapes. Colleges and universities will be presented
with new mechanisms for interacting with students,
as well as for linking the creation of knowledge with
its dissemination and application.
This latter point is most relevant to our discussion
this morning. Advanced information technologies have
transformed how we approach science and engineering
at the undergraduate level. At NSF, this theme has
been prominent in the competitions we've held for
activities like the institution-wide reform efforts
in the Division of Undergraduate Education, and our
one-time Recognition Awards for the Integration of
Research and Education.
Between handhelds, networks, sensors, and other emerging
technologies, we've gained new tools that ease the
integration of research into introductory level courses.
The Workshop Physics project developed at Dickinson
College by Priscilla Laws and her colleagues is one
of the best known and most successful examples of
this new wave of activities. Another is the half-decade-old
Engineering Education Coalitions program that aims
to create a holistic undergraduate experience for
engineering students. There are many experiments of
this sort underway and more undoubtedly will come.
These are all part of our larger goal of providing
students with a learning experience that is rooted
in data and discovery. The integration of research
and education has long been one of NSF's hallmarks.
We made it one of the key themes in our strategic
plan, and it continues to receive very high priority,
as exemplified in our FY98 budget request. My colleague
Norman Fortenberry, the head of our Division of Undergraduate
Education, will say more about this later this morning
in the workshop session on "Shaping the Future." I
highly recommend his presentation if you are interested
in NSF's overall approach to fostering innovation
at the undergraduate level.
Let me now move on to my conclusion, because I know
I have covered a lot of ground in just a few minutes.
To summarize, with the end of the Cold War we have
entered a period of accelerated transition where pitfalls
and possibilities abound. We must be astute observers
and students of the shifting global landscape. We
must agree on a collective vision and plot a path
together to reach our goals. We will be overtaken
if we think each sector can operate independently,
as in the old days. We must be bold and experimental
in developing and leading this somewhat nebulous era
of knowledge and distributed intelligence. Most of
all, we must rekindle the optimism of the American
pioneers and delight in the challenge of the journey.
Now let's talk about how to start.