May 28, 2008 — His research into what hooks students on science and what later leads them to become scientists have earned Robert Tai, a high school physics teacher-turned-university professor, the 2008 Award for Education Research Leadership from the Council of Scientific Society Presidents.
Tai, an associate professor at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, was cited for his "strategic pioneering initiatives in understanding the complex pathway from student to scientist" as the award was presented at the organization's May 4 meeting.
One of his more widely cited research studies appeared in the journal Science in 2006. This study offered the first empirical evidence linking pre-secondary school career interest in science-related careers with two to three times greater chance of earning a bachelor’s degree in the sciences or engineering. This finding offers support to the long-held notion that early interest in science is important to the development of the next generation of scientists and engineers.
The award also recognized Tai "for his leadership as an editor of Harvard Educational Review, for his salient findings on class size and student learning, in finding measures of progress in the growth from graduate student to research scientist, and in studying the impacts of high school courses and linkages from high school to college science learning."
"Robert Tai seems to have a knack for asking important questions about education," said William F. Carroll Jr., chairman-elect of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents' executive board and 2005 American Chemical Society President. "His study of indicators of future choice of a career in the sciences confirms some suspicions that many of us had; specifically, that many kids know what they want to be well before high school when they encounter chemistry, and that the ability to imagine oneself doing a particular kind of work is an important motivator. In short, it confirms the old adage, 'If you can see it, you can be it.' Most importantly, his work is clear and understandable by those of us in the sciences who need to know what works and what doesn't in education," Carroll said.
"Having received this prestigious award puts Robert in the company of prominent senior education researchers who have earned it in prior years," said Daniel B. Berch, U.Va. associate dean for research and faculty development in the Curry School. "What is remarkable, however, is that he has achieved this recognition at an early stage in his career. As the council's inscription acknowledges, this award reflects not only the pioneering research he has carried out to date, but also the promise of his future leadership in science education research.”
"His achievements represent the application of a rigorous approach to research that also has significant implications for policy and practice," Berch said.
Tai's latest research efforts include "Project Crossover: A Study of the Transition from Student to Scientist," a $1 million National Science Foundation-funded initiative; and "Youth-Based Program Impact on Education and Career Choices: An Exploration of Issues in Planning and Implementing Longitudinal Research," a $200,000 NSF-funded project. Tai is principal investigator for both projects and works closely with Curry professor Xitao Fan, co-principal investigator for both projects. Fan “plays a pivotal role in the research I am engaged in and has taken on the role of a mentor to me,” Tai said.
The Council of Scientific Society Presidents is an organization of presidents, presidents-elect and recent past presidents of about 60 scientific federations and societies whose combined membership numbers more than 1.4 million scientists and science educators. Since 1973, the council has served as a strong national voice in fostering science policy in support of science and science education, as the premier national science leadership development center and as a forum for open, substantive exchanges on emerging scientific issues. The council meets twice a year in Washington.