The University Record, April 5, 1999

Industry needs driving emphasis on inquiry-based education

By Jane R. Elgass
Former NSF director Neal Lane said hundreds of projects as diverse as the students who need them must be developed as a means of incorporating research-type experiences into the curriculum. Photo by Bob Kalmbach

We are living in an "age of breakthroughs" that will rely increasingly on a workforce whose members must have experience in collaborative activities and possess critical thinking and good communication skills, as well as a solid grounding in the knowledge base demanded by individual professions.

And one of the best arenas in which to prepare that workforce is the research university, which must work to make certain that "all students experience how scientists produce knowledge and validate their findings," Neal Lane told an attentive Rackham Amphitheater audience in delivering the Jerome B. Wiesner Lecture March 29.

Speaking on "Undergraduate Research and the Role of Inquiry in Education," Lane, former director of the National Science Foundation, current assistant to the President for science and technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, was the keynote speaker for the third annual Jerome B. Wiesner Policy Symposium, "New Integrations of Research, Scholarship and Undergraduate Education."

Citing mentors who made a difference in his life and that of Wiesner, U-M alumnus and former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lane noted that "these kinds of interactions are so common that we take them for granted. We can influence large numbers of students through mentoring relationships," he said, "and they'll draw on the information they learned and the way they learned it" for the rest of their lives.

The changing nature of the economy, continuous innovation in industry--industry spends twice as much as the federal government on research and development--and continuing government support for basic research are combining to place an increased focus on inquiry-based learning, Lane noted. Companies need workers who can think and work collaboratively. These kinds of skills are developed through an inquiry-based education, and much of that can be found in research activities.

The link between teaching and research, Lane said, grows out of the insight that people learn best by doing. Research experience provides the skills needed for the new world and opportunities for discovery. "When you discover something," he said, "it's a high you never forget."

By generating fundamental knowledge, the long-time partnership between government and universities has provided the foundation for training researchers and bringing inquiry-based education to students, he said.

The forthcoming report of the National Science and Technology Council on this partnership, he said, reaffirms the importance of that relationship, and will put forth for discussion a series of principles that will provide direction and a framework for development of future policies.

That framework, Lane said, is critical, because it will provide consistency in the development of policy and funding strategies. "Every administration comes in with new ideas to make things better," Lane noted. "We need continuity, a set of lasting values that can be used over time."

The Council's report, he said, also will reaffirm the importance of the integration of teaching and research. The U-M has been a leader in this area, particularly with the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). UROP is a national model, he said, and it must be shared with others. "We know the value of programs like this," he said, adding that the government must be encouraged to include an evaluation component in research grants. "The federal government needs to do more in this area, to look for new ways to integrate teaching and research. It needs to think creatively."

While UROP is impressive in involving more than 1,000 students, "we need to develop hundreds of projects that offer an array of experiences as diverse as the students who need them. It is important that all students experience how scientists produce and validate knowledge, so they can learn to make their own judgments," he stated. Research universities need to set the examples, "which will have a multiplier effect."

Emphasis on inquiry-based education should not be limited to higher education, Lane said. K-12 teachers also understand what is needed, that discovery and learning are hands-on, minds-on activities. And while many still rely on books, lectures and prescribed labs--"cookbook" education, Lane said there is reason for optimism. A study by the Educational Testing Service has found that teachers with a cross-disciplinary background can create this kind of environment if given the chance.

Over the next generation, the nation will have to replace two million teachers. "These new teachers are at universities now," Neal explained. "This is an unprecedented opportunity to change the face of American education so that inquiry becomes a self-perpetuating phenomenon."

Universities will shape the future, Lane concluded, as they provide the link between the world that is and the world that will be. While this is a difficult challenge, "universities have the creativity and determination and the desire to preserve freedom" to meet the challenge.