Skip To Content Skip To Left Navigation
NSF Logo Search GraphicGuide To Programs GraphicImage Library GraphicSite Map GraphicHelp GraphicPrivacy Policy Graphic
OLPA Header Graphic

Dr. Colwell's Remarks


"Teachers, Partners, and Prosperity: A Formula for the Future"

Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Marshall University
Huntington, West Virginia

November 16, 1999

It's always a pleasure to come to West Virginia. There is excitement in the air here and a real enthusiasm about the future.

I've been looking forward to this visit ever since Senator Rockefeller first mentioned it to my office.

I'm from Massachusetts, so I always look forward to the cooler weather. I felt that refreshing chill in the air when I stepped off the plane this morning, and it reminded me of a story a neighbor told me last winter.

His car had slid off the road in a snowstorm and fallen into a small ditch.

Fortunately, one of our neighbors drove by with his 4x4 pickup--complete with a towing hook. Just the kind of vehicle you need in the suburbs....

They hooked a chain around the car's rear bumper and started pulling. After a few seconds, the car lurched--and then the bumper flew off, leaving the car in the ditch.

The driver of the truck looked at the chain and the bumper sitting there together. Then, he shrugged his shoulders and said: "Bob, if we don't start pulling out bigger pieces--we're going to be here all day."

This underscores my main point for today. We're not content with piecemeal approaches at NSF.

We're thinking big--especially when it comes to NSF and West Virginia and our shared commitment to quality education and economic growth.

Quality education is first and foremost about quality development and training for all teachers.

We expect teachers to carry a major part of the responsibility for what we know and for what we are able to achieve as a nation.

In order to get the best from our teachers; we must first offer them the best. We must treat them and train them as if our national life depends on them--because it does, in every way.

Teachers have the fundamental responsibility for preparing students of today for the workplace of tomorrow.

You may have heard people say, "prediction is very difficult--especially about the future."

At various times, I've heard that attributed to Niels Bohr, Mark Twain, and Yogi Berra--three names that rarely go together in the same sentence.

However, unpredictable the future may be, we can say several things with supreme confidence about what it will bring.

  • The nature of work and the work environment will be fast-paced--changing and evolving over months instead of years.

  • Knowledge will advance like a constantly rolling sea. The knowledge in any given field has the potential to be routinely overturned by new discoveries and perspectives.

  • Lifetime learning will become a survival skill.

  • Technology will become as integral to each person's job as a pen and pencil were in the past.

  • Tomorrow's workers will not only need to be effective and engaged, but also adaptable--comfortable and friendly to change. I recall once hearing that we don't need a highly trained workforce. We need a highly trainable workforce.

These are the certainties in an uncertain future. They are the sure bets.

NSF has a long history and a large stake in teacher training. Our teacher training programs reach more than 95 thousand future teachers each year.

The Department of Education projects that we'll need an estimated 2.2 million new teachers by the year 2006. This figure includes over 200,000 secondary math and science teachers.

The investment that NSF makes is helping to meet this national need. It is also catalyzing change in the way that teachers are taught in all fields.

In a society firmly based on science and technology, it is inadequate to have science and math instruction by teachers untrained in those fields.

It is unfair to the students and, in the end, it is unproductive for the nation.

An excellent example of what we can accomplish together is the Appalachia Rural Systemic Initiative--or ARSI for short.

West Virginia is an important member, and the initiative has brought together a diverse set of partners and collaborators.

They are united by one goal: improving both teacher training and student achievement in science and mathematics.

ARSI is a galaxy of participants drawn together by telecommunications and internet connectivity--and it works.

Teacher development is a revered subject at NSF. We work first with teachers in preparation for their careers.

It is our goal to strengthen the ties between schools of education and schools of arts and sciences to provide the best science and math content for prospective teachers.

For teachers already established in their careers, we have long provided summer workshops for content advancement and career development.

The newest component in our teacher enhancement portfolio is a program of graduate teaching fellows.

NSF provides fellowship support for science and math graduate students to teach and to assist teachers in local school districts.

This new and exciting initiative is building genuine partnerships between universities and school systems.

I am very pleased that West Virginia University won one of the first awards. Its graduate students are now providing subject and instructional support to middle school teachers here in West Virginia.

Next year--with the help of Senator Rockefeller and his colleagues--we hope to start a new set of activities we call Centers for Teaching and Learning.

These are a centerpiece of our 21st Century Workforce initiative, and they are modeled upon our highly successful Engineering Research Centers and Science and Technology Centers.

They will bring together all the pieces of the puzzle--two-and four-year colleges and universities, K-12 districts, science museums and other informal centers, and the private sector.

The task of teacher training is comprehensive and complex. With an economy based on knowledge and a growing infrastructure of IT, teachers will need the most current information in their fields and constantly updated technology skills.

We've all witnessed the profound impact scientific breakthroughs and technological advances have had on our economy and our quality of life.

For me personally, I see this whenever I go back and visit my home town of Beverly Cove, Massachusetts. I can't help being struck by how much it's changed.

The four-room school house I went to is now a subdivision of homes. The rock quarry where I used to find tadpoles is another subdivision.

New development has changed the landscape. Even more than that, economic transformation has changed people's lives.

My father made his living in the construction industry. When I was growing up, the biggest company in town was called United Shoe.

Everything was built around the concept of a main line manufacturing town.

Now, the biggest employers in Beverly are in health care, scientific and technical instruments, and information services.

That's just a snapshot from one city in one state, but it reflects changes in the nature of work and the economy that are taking place across the nation.

Let me point out two important aspects of these changes:

  • First, we are more productive than ever before. For every hour of work, we Americans produce twice as much as we did in 1960.

  • Second, our fastest-growing job categories are all in professions with significant educational requirements: areas like medical technologies, financial systems, and multimedia. We're moving into an economy based on knowledge and ideas.

Discovery and innovation have been a driving force behind our economic gains. They are the key to our continuing economic leadership in the future.

Robert Solow, the MIT-based economist and a member of the National Science Board, won the Nobel Prize for his seminal work on the sources of economic growth. He showed that labor and capital account for only around half of the total. The lion's share comes from technological change.

In other words, we're twice as productive as we were forty years ago because of the innovations and discoveries that we've made in science, engineering, mathematics, and technology.

We're also using our resources smarter than before. The economist Paul Romer reminds us that we once used sand in an hourglass to tell time.

Today, we use those same grains of sand for the silicon in computer chips. Same material; more valuable use.

We're seeing the fruits of these insights and advances in today's Internet and biotechnology companies.

This in turn has led to the productivity improvements in all forms of manufacturing and services.

We have these opportunities today because of research that we did years ago--often decades ago.

We will have even more exciting opportunities in the future because of research that we're doing today.

Let me mention just a few examples:

  • Nanotechnology is allowing us to build machines so small that they are rapidly approaching the scale of human cells. Consider: a nanometer is to an inch what an inch is to 400 miles. We are on the verge of building machines on that scale.

  • The genomics revolution is enabling the study of whole genomes rather than single genes, giving us a perspective on living systems that we've never had before.

  • New devices based on quantum computing or DNA computing could make the information revolution of today look like a paltry beginning.

  • And, understanding the social and cultural impacts of technology could transform the way new technologies are deployed.

This highlights my central point: NSF's investments are catalysts. They are like yeast. They shape our economic future through new knowledge and a skilled workforce.

We live in a world where economic value comes from knowledge. Knowledge comes from people.

So if there's one thing that's as important as research to our nation's economic future, it's education.

A 21st century workforce must be taught and trained by teachers with 21st century skills. Anything less inhibits the nation's ability to compete and prosper.

Anything less imperils our children and their children.

West Virginia is on the threshold of making a major investment in teacher training. I can say to you from the depths of my personal commitment, it's the best investment that you can make.

From that investment, we can all reap the rewards of strong leadership and a secure future.



National Science Foundation
Office of Legislative and Public Affairs
4201 Wilson Boulevard
Arlington, Virginia 22230, USA
Tel: 703-292-8070
FIRS: 800-877-8339 | TDD: 703-292-5090

NSF Logo Graphic