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Dr. Bordogna's Remarks


Strengthening Graduate Education in Science and Engineering: Promising Practices and Strategies for Implementation

Acting Deputy Director
Chief Operating Officer
NSF Overview

June 29, 1998

(As delivered)

Thank you, Ginger, for a kind introduction. I'm very pleased at being asked to lend an NSF perspective on the important work you will be doing for the next couple of days. The fate of graduate education, the focus of our attention, is nothing short of central to the future vitality of science and engineering. NSF is eager to hear your findings.

It is heartening to see the eclectic set of participants in attendance. It is fun to share the stage with my colleague and National Science Board Chairman, Eamon Kelly, whose diverse perspective is critical to providing a reality check for the discussion. For all of these reasons, let me extend a special thanks to the University of Wisconsin's National Institute for Science Education and the Graduate School, as well as all the institutions that have helped to make this forum possible.

Some might question the workshop's premise -- exploring whether graduate education in the United States should change -- but I laud it. Undeniably, our system, the focus of your intensive study here, is a model to the world and an ingredient in our national prosperity. The health and future of this national resource is especially important to all of us who care about the human dimension of science, engineering, and technology. A basic tenet of NSF's mission is to ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science, mathematics, and engineering in the United States, and to reinforce its diversity.

We are all aware of the criticisms of the past decade's discussion of our system of doctoral education. This forum has a pedigree of past workshops and reports upon whose proverbial shoulders we stand. We can thus see further because of what went before. Among these is the 1995 report, "Reshaping the Graduate Education of Scientists and Engineers" -- better known as the COSEPUP report.

It took a balanced look at the topic, noting challenges our graduate schools face in times of rapid change. The litany of concerns it raised are familiar to us: Our system is too rigid, too standardized, too compartmentalized, too narrow, too reticent about realistic career options of students. Yet, it is not the concerns that should demand our attention; rather, our vision of the future should guide our actions.

The COSEPUP report noted that over half of new doctorate-holders work outside academe -- a fraction that has gone up over the past quarter-century or so, and continues to grow. The report's authors recommend that the future doctoral process should produce more versatile graduates able to embrace a wider spectrum of career options.

Now we're moving to focus on the viable, the specific-innovative practices that really work. Let's first step to a higher dimension and consider the context, the transformations in society and universities that are the envelope for this workshop.

Change is a constant -- albeit a cliched one -- yet I would venture that two singularities of current change make it more critical than before that we master its course. Two characteristics that define our current pace of change are its rapidity and its complexity.

One study by Don Kash and Bob Rycroft -- two visionaries in science and technology policy -- found that the most successful commercial technologies have indeed become more complex in recent decades. In the 1970s, nearly 60% of the world's top exports were simple products. Today, it's just the reverse: 60% are complex products, requiring complex processes to produce.

To make a long analysis short, the future belongs to those who can make sense of the complex. It's our task to prepare science and engineering students to shape a world now driven by that type of change. We need to look forward to enabling and molding what is to come, even when we don't quite understand that future.

As Tennessee Williams put it, "There is a time for departure even when there's no certain place to go." This is one of those times, and this workshop can help NSF to guide the frontier of excellence in human capability into the future -- with your help.

Let's acknowledge forthrightly that one challenge to our efforts is, paradoxically, the very excellence of what our graduate education system has been for the past half century. I was reading through Roger Geiger's paper, "The Old Era in American Graduate Education". I don't want to steal his thunder since he's featured on a panel this morning, but I was struck by his observation that, "it is exceedingly difficult to 'reform' successful institutions" -- such as graduate education.

He adds that it is not the success or shortcomings of the enterprise that is the crux of the question; rather, and again I quote, it is "that the current era has grown old...that we are ripe for significant change." There is no question that our graduate education system has done great things -- but there is also no question that the world is becoming a different place now. In these times of extraordinary change, incremental and reductionist approaches, business as usual, simply will not work.

I know Terry and many of you have worked hard to identify and describe "featured practices" -- creative programs that are already illuminating new pathways not trod by our graduate system before, ideas that will no doubt inspire many more during the forum.

Let me cite some favorite "featured practices" of my own.

One is NSF's Science and Technology Centers. They commit, among other requirements, to providing a variety of education and research opportunities for both students and faculty. In tandem with this, they create linkages to foster the transfer of knowledge among universities, industry, government, minority institutions, and so on. They also offer industrial and international internships or other experiences to broaden careers.

Another is NSF's set of Engineering Research Centers, which have melded the vision of academe, industry, and government to create next-generation systems that have impact industry-wide. Most to the point here, the centers are producing a new generation of more productive graduates with high potential to lead future industry. It took us a decade of experience before we really knew we were making an impact. That provides just one example of how we stepped off into the unknown.

Our new flagship effort for graduate education, the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Training Program, melds over experiences with STCs, ERCs, and a variety of other experiments, and fosters a generic holistic approach. Its goal is to graduate Ph.Ds with broad preparation, with multidisciplinary backgrounds, and with the technical, professional, and personal skills to meet the varied career demands of the future. The proposed projects center a multidisciplinary research theme. They target critical and emerging areas of science and engineering, provide hands-on experience on with instrumentation and methodology, and offer work experience on and off-campus. We will be keeping a close eye on the types of graduates who emerge from this experience.

Several of the featured practices for our gathering today have also caught my eye. Our first theme, that of highlighting practices that serve students and society, is brought to life in a program created by Rice University for underrepresented groups in the computational sciences.

The program challenges archaic admissions policies, noting that some students with marginal GRE scores have become research stars. It views standardized tests as preventing "the nation from tapping into a large part of its human resources, creativity and intellect...We have learned to put great value on what we measure and have forgotten to ask if this measure is flawed concerning what we value...These tests are far from God-given. Here we need to play philosopher more and mathematician less..." [p. 23].

So playing philosopher, let us ask: How can we help universities to reward diversity -- not the somewhat vacuous, amorphous rainbow, but a truly valuable resource: diversity of intellect? What inspires faculty to serve most effectively as mentors for all students? Which universities' efforts are especially successful at attracting and nurturing members of underrepresented groups? How can NSF challenge our grant review panelists to think broadly and inclusively about indicators of promising talent?

You can help us cultivate this critical resource, help us to face the future with all parts of our society engaged, with full participation in science and technology by all citizens.

We will also value your advice on enhancing the links between graduate education and business and industry. As NSF invests more in shaping the workforce of the future, we need all of your ideas on how to foster integration between academe and the commercial sector.

Some of the favored practices concern creative new topics for degrees that embody this linkage. Masters and Ph.D. programs for industrial mathematics at the University of Minnesota, for example, require an internship at a company. Another example is the doctorate in industrial technology management based at Indiana State University in conjunction with a consortium of universities.

These are the kinds of ideas we seek, in a world where the marketplace is racing ahead, while our educational system is in danger of lagging behind. Again, our colleagues from industry who are here can give us particularly valuable feedback on how NSF and our graduate schools can generate a scientific and technological workforce that can keep pace with a fast-changing world.

As you survey your own multiplicity of perspectives over the next two days, I'd like to ask for help in one other extremely important activity. You may already know that NSF, like the entire federal government, is being asked with increasing specificity to account for its stewardship of the public's investment in science and technology. The Government Performance and Results Act has compelled us to take a comprehensive look at NSF programs. This is much on the minds of our Congressional overseers, which by extension keeps it on our minds.

Our programs in advanced education are not exempt from this requirement to demonstrate measurable results. As you focus your discussions on specific successful practices, I'd like to challenge you also to invent strategies to measure and document that success -- how to express in concrete terms the results of a given investment in graduate education.

I would like to leave you with one last thought. As you share ideas on the creative strategies gleaned from the grassroots of graduate education, do take the risk of opening your own minds and those around you, and let us know what you find. We want to listen carefully. In the words of Erich Hoffer, the union leader and social philosopher, "In times of change learners will inherit the earth, while the learned will find themselves well-equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."

Since we are gathered here as a learned group of learners, I guess this means we have our work cut out for us. Help us to fashion a system that shapes graduates who can indeed imagine what might be.

Thank you.


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