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Dr. Colwell's Remarks


Dr. Rita R. Colwell
National Science Foundation
Luncheon Address
Middlebury College

September 25, 2000

Good afternoon. Many thanks to President McCardell, faculty, staff, and the entire community here at Middlebury.

Being featured at this kind of forum is indeed an honor, and it makes me feel very much part of this community.

You may have heard Washington DC described as 60 square miles of confusion surrounded by reality.

I have appreciated the opportunity to travel with Senator Jeffords over the past weekend for a brief hiatus from the confusion.

While I was preparing my remarks, I was brainstorming with my family about what I wanted to say in honor of Middlebury's Bicentennial Celebration.

I could only imagine what my grandson, who's now two and a half, must have thought about the conversation. He probably thought, "That's really cool. It must be just like a centennial-only with more legs."

For 200 years, Middlebury has remained preeminent among the nation's liberal arts colleges. You have led us all with commitment to diversity.

Most Americans don't know names like Alexander Twilight and May Belle Chellis, but they should.

It's also clear that the new science center sets a high standard for us all.

Bicentennial Hall embodies Albert Einstein's' metaphorical words that, "The Temple of Science is a multi-faceted building."

All of us appreciate the need to give students a well-rounded education-that includes, of course, the sciences, but also math, history, literature, and the arts and humanities.

This educational approach results in thoughtful, insightful leaders, with broad perspectives. It's just one more reason for Middlebury to deserve our highest praise.

As you might know, NSF is also celebrating this year-its 50th anniversary as a wellspring for discoveries in research and education.

In the spirit of this visionary legacy, I would like to spend a few minutes exploring vital trends in both research and education in science and engineering.

The first trend I'll discuss is the cross-pollination of research disciplines-which is the driving force behind many new fields and several key initiatives at NSF. The second is the integration of research and education.

And the third is the troubling divide occurring throughout our society in various aspects of science and technology. Today, I'll focus in particular on these issues in relation to young women.

When we talk about research, we can all see the major changes that have occurred over NSF's 50 years.

We've moved from a massive infusion into physics and engineering to a recognition that all disciplines must be nourished.

As the Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson has written,

"We are approaching a new age of synthesis, when the testing of consilience"-or the unity of knowledge-"is the greatest of all intellectual challenges."

I would like to speak from personal experience for a moment when reflecting upon how our enterprise of science and technology has evolved over these decades.

I speak as a believer in the power of basic research to improve lives, sometimes unexpectedly and sometimes as a result of directed leadership.

I have always been intrigued by complexity. Reductionist science, dissecting the whole into the smallest parts, seemed to me like clear-cutting a forest in order to study one tiny seedling.

I have always been more interested as a biologist in how it all comes together-intrigued by the mixture, by the froth that makes life bubble.

I have spent more than 30 years studying cholera, a terrible water-borne scourge that still kills thousands every year in developing countries.

Today we have reached the point in our research where women in Bangladesh are testing a simple filtering system for their drinking water, using sari cloth to remove plankton and particulate matter to which the cholera bacteria are attached.

To get to this juncture took decades of study for us to define the life cycle of the organism that causes cholera.

I have seen firsthand, in my research, the power of meeting other disciplines more than halfway.

We gain a richness of vantage points at different scales, such as the broad view provided by remote sensing techniques.

In recent years, satellite data have shown how global environmental change influences the spread of cholera. Further refinements to those techniques could help us save thousands of lives a year.

They allow us to monitor and predict conditions conducive to cholera epidemics. Without remote sensing, developing models to allow proactive measures against the disease would be difficult, if not impossible.

We are watching the interconnections deepen between branches of knowledge-a process that will drive our progress more than ever before. Where disciplines meet, creativity thrives.

One new tool, the perspective of complexity, spans all fields of study and all scales.

At NSF, one of our key current emphases is "biocomplexity."

It's an interdisciplinary view of the complex interactions in biological and social systems-and between these systems and their physical environments.

We know that ecosystems do not respond linearly to environmental change. Tracing the complexity of the Earth's environment is profoundly important to the future of life on our planet.

When we look at our own species, we see a system as complex as any, and the disciplines are converging to chart it.

Learning how we learn-studying the cognitive biology of the brain-is as compelling a research frontier as we have ever seen.

We search for the common principles that underlie life at every scale, from an individual to an ecosystem.

Another stage for the meeting of the physical and biological worlds is the Lilliputian level of the nanoscale.

At this magical point on the dimensional scale, nanostructures are at the confluence of the smallest of human-made devices and the large molecules of living systems.

We are beginning to manipulate individual atoms and molecules. We're beginning to create materials and structures from the bottom up, the way nature does it.

NSF is now leading a major national initiative on nanotechnology. This will change the way almost everything is designed, from medicines to electronics to Tupperware.

As the disciplines draw together, the need to integrate research with education is more urgent than ever. That's my second theme-the linkage of learning and discovery.

Only through this synthesis will the knowledge at the frontiers of discovery become available to everyone who wants to learn.

We know that jobs requiring science and technology skills are expanding, and all signs are that we'll see that trend continue. The five fastest-growing occupations today are in computing.

Undergraduate education is being transformed in the process. NSF is very engaged in this arena.

  • For example, our Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program gives students a chance for meaningful participation in active research.

  • Our Research in Undergraduate Institutions supports faculty research-the other side of the coin.

  • Our Division for Undergraduate Education also promotes links between science and student research.

Let me mention two ways NSF is working with the faculty here at Middlebury. Andrea Lloyd and her colleagues' project seeks to introduce a more mechanistic, experimental approach to ecological issues.

This project moves ecology from observational studies to laboratory experiments. The students "learn-by-doing." They go to field sites, share their data, and, in the process, gain an appreciation of ecology as a broad and interdisciplinary science.

Another NSF award is helping to modernize a computer-controlled telescope. It will give students the opportunity to do more advanced spectral analysis.

And even more important, it will allow Frank Winkler and his colleagues to reach into the greater community-providing opportunities for local teachers and improving the general understanding of science by the public.

This is just one way that information technologies foster new connections of all kinds. The most powerful of these connections may well be in education-especially higher education.

As former Cornell University President and National Science Board Chair Frank Rhodes puts it,

"The new learning opportunities are going to involve access from anywhere on earth, literally. It will be knowledge on demand... It really changes the culture of learning and teaching."

We all know that Web-based learning has tremendous potential to broaden the reach of academic institutions.

Students of every age will be able to earn credits and degrees without conforming to the confines of campus schedules, without paying commuting costs, and so on.

For many, IT provides the first opportunity for education to fit into their lives rather than trying to fit themselves into the rigid structure of on-site learning.

We are also beginning to realize the potential of fashioning a degree from courses handpicked at several institutions. The potential of who can provide an education has opened wide.

This is all to the good, as long as we don't lose sight of the value of a campus setting, especially when the leaves are starting to turn.

We all know there are benefits to an on-site education that cannot be squeezed through a modem.

This compels us to think in a new way about how undergraduate education fits into a lifetime of learning.

Our traditional education "stream"-that is, K-12, undergraduate and graduate levels-has been viewed as a series of disconnected stages in one's life. It is not.

Those levels comprise a continuum, and the chasms between them must be bridged.

Creating a seamless continuum requires collaboration across the system. NSF's newest effort is our program to place graduate teaching fellows in K-12 classrooms.

We call it GK12 for short. Classroom teachers get the chance to learn about the latest discoveries, while graduate students can explore a career in teaching by getting their feet wet in the classroom.

This program can help higher education institutions re-think graduate education, perhaps encouraging them to align multi-disciplinary education with teacher preparation.

In this new world we cannot afford to leave large parts of our population to languish in scientific illiteracy.

As E. O. Wilson predicts,

"The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely."

This brings me to my third and final theme-the obligation to bridge the various divides emerging in our use of technology as a society.

I know that all of us here share a deep commitment to progress for women and for all underrepresented groups.

But, we all have lots of work to do across science and engineering generally. Let's look to the latest trends in information technologies to put this problem in a realistic context.

We've heard a number of stories of how basic research-and information technology-drive innovation. We also know how critical innovation is to our economic growth.

As Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan said earlier this year,

"we are now living through a pivotal period in American economic history...It is the growing use of information technology throughout the economy that makes the current period unique."

Job growth is happening more rapidly in our economy in areas that require training in science, engineering, and technology.

You may have seen the congressional report called "Land of Plenty," issued by the Congressional Commission on the Advancement of Women and Minorities in Science, Engineering and Technology Development. This is the short version.

The commission states this: if women, minorities, and the disabled-two-thirds of U.S. workers-joined the science and engineering workforce in proportion to their numbers, the shortage in skilled S&T workers "would largely be eliminated."

The commission warns that if our country continues to exclude so many citizens from the new economy, "our nation will risk losing its economic and intellectual preeminence."

The report takes a comprehensive look at the full range of issues. Let me just highlight a few findings, especially those focused on the participation of women.

The percentage of women receiving bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science has been dropping since the mid-1980s.

We see a downward trend for both men and women-but it's been more precipitous for women.

The number of doctoral degrees has managed to remain roughly flat, but only because of an increase of female foreign students.

While numbers of women majors in such fields as biology, physics, math, and even engineering are increasing, the percentage going into computer science remains stagnant.

The challenge is acute and troubling. Why are girls avoiding computing careers?

The book Does Jane Compute? by Roberta Furger-which cites NSF-supported research-should be essential reading for parents.

In subtle and unsubtle ways, Furger points out, girls become discouraged early about computing.

The family computer is often located in the boy's bedroom.

Image is another problem: girls are turned off by the stereotype of the white, antisocial, workaholic computer geek.

Many computer games-often kids' first exposure to computers-also repel girls.

They dislike the violent, repetitive, and sexist elements of the games that are widely available.

Instead, they ask for identity games in which they could create a character or build a world, with chances to communicate and collaborate.

I recently learned that the Girl Scouts of America have a new campaign in computing. They even have their own badge.

The numbers are 7 and 19 in binary code, which represent "G" and "S" for Girl Scouts.

As part of the program which targets girls in grades four-through-six, girls visit the San Diego Supercomputer Center to learn about computing.

They surf the Web, create 3-D graphics, and talk with the center's scientists and engineers.

That's the way to bring in computer science at an early age-grades three and four-before girls get turned off by science and engineering in general.

While we can celebrate many positive efforts to incorporate more women into the prosperous mainstream of IT, anecdotal evidence on why girls and women avoid the field just isn't enough.

A New York Times editorial entitled "Technology's Gender Gap" highlighted the issue a few weeks back.

NSF will continue to invest in research on ways to attract girls to learning science, technology, and mathematics. We're gaining insights on how to change our educational approaches.

We are focused on increasing women and minority participation in science and engineering, and we look to Middlebury College as a catalyst in this mission.

To strengthen our knowledge base will not only empower us as a society, but also bolster our nation's prosperity.

It will take the threads woven by us all to create this fabric of our collective future. I am confident that it can be a masterpiece.

We are grateful for the past 200 years of contributions Middlebury has made to our society. And as always, we will continue to expect great things.

Thank you again for inviting me to join you.



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