NSF Director Rita Colwell
Papers and Presentations, Mathematics and Science Initiative
Archived Information

Thank you, Susan. I am very pleased to greet you all this morning on behalf of the National Science Foundation.

I want to assure you that we share with our colleagues at the Department of Education the firm conviction that no aspect of our children's instruction will have a greater impact on the nation's future than ensuring their fundamental competence in science and mathematics.

No single action the country can take is ultimately more important to our long-term national security and our future prosperity.

We live in an age of accelerating change, propelled by almost daily advances in research and technology. Communications and transportation, medicine and commerce, work and leisure—all are undergoing explosive transformations.

Any child who is unprepared to take part in—and benefit from—the pace of that progress will truly be "left behind" in the 21st Century. And we can't afford to leave anyone behind. We need to nurture every talent that this diverse and robust society can offer, and encourage the maximum potential of every mind.

We make this commitment not simply because it is an article of our national faith. But because the security of our homeland—in the broadest and most profound sense—is inseparable from the capabilities of our citizens. The quality of life in America tomorrow will depend directly on the kind of science and math preparation that we provide today, to the broadest possible range of students.

That is why we are proud to offer the National Science Foundation's full cooperation and partnership in fulfilling the President's vision of No Child Left Behind.

Achieving that aim will demand the best and most inventive ideas we can find. We'll not only have to think "outside the box," but outside of the room—and maybe even the whole neighborhood.

Children learn when neurons make new synaptic connections. We'll have to learn the same way—by enabling new combinations and associations of ideas. One of the things that NSF traditionally does best is to challenge tradition, by encouraging the growth of new connections—among researchers, among different disciplines, and among previously separate points of view.

That may be particularly valuable in the present circumstances.

One of the great and dismal paradoxes of contemporary education is that a large segment of the American public feels that math is somewhat removed—if not completely disconnected—from other areas of learning. That's apparently why many citizens who would be ashamed to admit that they knew nothing about history or literature or government or business are quite comfortable volunteering that they are ignorant of mathematics.

Of course, it has never been true that math is somehow separated from other educational or social endeavors—and it is arguably less so now than at any time in recent memory.

Hundreds of times a day, every American is touched by and dependent upon mathematics. Signal-processing algorithms put us in touch by phone and e-mail. Optimization schemes determine where our airplanes land and when our groceries are delivered to market. Logic circuits in microchips tell our automobiles how to run. Structural calculations hold our buildings and bridges up just as surely as steel and concrete.

At the same time, mathematics has become the lingua franca of virtually all the sciences, including the behavioral, economic and political sciences.

Just as the "Frankish" language—an amalgamated pidgin of French and Italian—enabled medieval traders from radically dissimilar cultures to find a way to come together, the tools of modern mathematics are providing ever more connections among fields that might at first appear to have little or nothing in common—and that may historically have had little, if any, communication.

The same kind of pattern-recognition techniques that astronomers use to interpret images from the heavens are now being employed to extract tumor information from mammograms and security information from satellite or surveillance data.

The same sort of mathematical models that are being used to study global climate or turbulence generated by aircraft wings are also being applied to studying other complex fluctuating systems, from the stock market to ecosystems to the behavior of whole societies.

The same types of equations and computer algorithms that enable scientists to investigate nuclear fusion are helping us understand how proteins get their tangled shapes. In fact, understanding the structure and complicated functioning of the human genome—and those of other living things—has benefited directly from mathematical analysis and computer science in the nascent field of bioinformatics.

These are precisely the sorts of powerful connections that NSF is genuinely, and perhaps uniquely, equipped to encourage. And it is there that we may be of the most service to the grand national goals of improving mathematics education and awareness.

Over the past half-century, NSF has nurtured a vast network of researchers—now hundreds of thousands strong—and has found ever more fruitful ways for them to connect in novel, innovative, synergetic combinations. In this respect, we resemble the ancient Greek academy—which was not so much an institution as an opportunity for thinkers to connect.

As the nation seeks to reform and revitalize its methods of education, we will do well to heed that example. Plato founded his academy on public property, in part of an olive grove donated by Academus, a celebrated Athenian hero. Academus' martial exploits are now largely forgotten. But his name will live forever because of the connections he made possible.

In that grove, moralists debated with logicians, and mathematicians confronted legal theorists. From that tumult of associations, that relentless questioning and intellectual daring, the academy shook the world and altered the future of education. It is not too much to hope that we might do the same.

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Last Modified: 09/14/2004