Science Education: the glass half-broken?

Science education is a topic that I'm very much interested in. 

In fact, I attended a fascinating discussion at the 2011 Biophysics Meeting yesterday on "The Future of Science Education in America." Since then, a couple of things have come to my attention in the news - coincidence? No. I think that it's part of an ongoing, massive realization that we are failing children with the current system.

The discussion I attended featured talks by four people: Bruce Alberts, Editor of Science Magazine, Shirley Malcolm from American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS), and David Asai and Tuajuanda Jordan from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI).

Each person brought something unique to the table. Alberts has long championed changing the educational system when it comes to STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) programs. Malcolm did an excellent job of summing up what works and what doesn't for education at all levels - K-12, university, and post-graduate. And Asai and Jordan are both involved in some remarkable new programs designed to engage and retain students in the sciences.

Rather than break down my notes, I'll just hit some of the major themes. And because it's a summary of my notes, I'm probably not going to have time to track down and link all sources independently - just contact me or comment if something's unclear.

1. Proper science education is requisite for producing a science-literate populace.
I don't mean this sentence to sound snobby, but that's the way it is. I sincerely believe that the nonsense with Creationism would not have roots if more of the population understood science. (Yes, I can call it nonsense, because this is my blog. And because it is.)
Many people will not take science again after whatever introductory classes they choose to fulfill requirements. Creating a set of intro courses that teaches people how to think like sciences will help them understand science later in life - even if they end up in an entirely different field. Thus, people will know the right questions to ask when they read a story about a scientific breakthrough. Parents will know how to be involved in their kids' science education. Politicians will - maybe - better appreciate the need to fund many of the problems that are highly underfunded - in favor of 'sexier' fields - and understand the challenges that we face moving forward.

2. Introductory science courses are a major failure in the system.
Too many Universities adopt a rubber-stamp approach with 600-student lectures, or an attitude that 'weeds out' students trying for a science-related major. Rather than teaching students how to think, the panelists pointed out, they burden students with irrelevant facts. Examples weren't limited to universities. Grade school kids are often required to memorize sections of the periodic table (I was). But what does that give them for the future? Why spend time on that? Interesting thought.

3. S, T, and E, which were weak to begin with, have largely been pushed aside in favor of M.
This is not to say that math is not important, but this imbalance is a huge problem if we hope to produce students that are competitive with the rest of the world (and we need to do so). According to Alberts, part of this is due to standard testing, which requires emphasis on language and math, and part of this is due to No Child. In addition, failure of the states to adopt the national standards for science education proposed in 1996 led to a massive problem: publishers trying to write books to satisfy each state, reduction of test standards to cover everyone's requirements, curricula that don't match across state lines, etc. Interestingly, panelists cited efforts that are underway to create a new set of national recommendations.

4. At all levels (even K), science classes need to shift from memorizing facts (think, parts of a flower) to emphasizing the scientific process. 
Examining a problem, generating and testing hypotheses, collecting data, and analyzing results. These are the skills useful to science that assist with problem solving and analysis. These are also far more engaging activities. Plus, think about how much more applicable this problem-solving technique is than knowing what a stamen is.

5. Pilot programs such as the SEA run by HHMI move away from large lecture format and to small groups, interactive lessons, and critical thinking. 
These programs, since their institution, have been shown to retain higher numbers of students (ie, they minimize the number of kids who switch majors) and produce higher grades when compared to the standard university lecture model. Programs at the HHMI also extend resources to schools that may be less competitive for resources or other educational grants.

I will say that I wholly support the things discussed by the panel. I was fortunate enough to take two physics classes in college that adopted this interactive teaching approach (the professor's research was physics education research). They were far more engaging than most other courses I had in four years, and in some ways more difficult. We were given a box of items at the start of each lab, told the problem, and then told to find a way to make it work. It was by far the closest experience to graduate school I had - before I hit the lab bench, anyway. And they were 100 level classes.

There is no reason why students of all ages could not benefit from this approach. Consider the inquisitive nature of a five year old. Those kids can be very observant. What a waste not to let them use it to ask and answer questions about the world around them.

So, out of this discussion, I will just give you the things that caught my attention in the news. They seemed relevant to one or more of the points mentioned above.

1. An analysis of Science education in Maryland via the Baltimore Sun.

2. A story via NPR about a future "Noah's Ark" Park in KY that features creationist themes - oh, and to which the state's governor has proposed giving tax breaks.

Finally... I don't have children and I'm not a teacher, so I'm not closely in tune with what's going on in HCPSs. But I have participated in the past as a judge in the HoCo STEM Fair*, and I was impressed by much of what I saw - particularly in the mentorship programs that paired students with research faculty in the state.  I see this as a really excellent feature of our local system, and hope that other aspects of HoCo's STEM programs are as strong (or getting there). (hocoblogs@@@)

Oh.. one more thing... I went searching for news releases about the latest STEM fair, and failed to find one after a few minutes of googling and searching both Explore Howard and Columbia Patch - just the same announcement that it was happening. This is an extreme disservice to the program, and I'm pretty disappointed in that, Local News Outlets! Bigtime Fail.  Still, if you're willing to believe me that there were equally cool projects the last year I judged, here's a story from... 2001. >.>

Edit: Here are mentions of MS and HS science fair winners on Columbia Patch (link with search term "science fair").

What do you think of overhauling the STEM educational programs in HoCo? Maryland? Nationwide?  How would you change it?


  1. Great post! I only have (recent) experience with science education on the elementary level, but in my opinion, it is largely overlooked because it is not on the MSAs (Maryland Standard Achievement test). As much as they try not to teach to the test, it does happen to some extent. Right now my third grader has a dedicated science lesson only twice a month and a social studies lesson twice a month. Neither of these things are tested.

    Howard County Libraries started offering a bunch of science programs a few years ago. I was talking to a librarian at the time and she said that HoCo was really trying to push science, so that's why they were offering these programs. A lot of them are great, really great - but they have limited seating and they aren't always offered at times that fit my schedule. And why is the library is supplementing elementary education rather than the school system?

    My daughter's school is new - only 4 years old - 3 years ago I spearheaded starting a science fair for the school through the PTA. The administration is glad to have it, but the PTA has really struggled to get teachers involved. They don't even come to the fair to see their students' projects!

    The GT program offers "Curriculum Extension Units" that are often about science or engineering - the one my daughter is about to start is about bridges. But these are by invitation only and invitations are generally only extended to the smarter kids. My kid really needs these enrichments, she is very smart and needs the academic challenge, but I really think that kids who are maybe not categorized as the smartest kids would really benefit from these kinds of things.

    It's a tough balance teaching children who struggle academically the basic math and reading necessities while also offering them things that keep them interested and engaged in their educations.

  2. The programs through the library and the GT program sound really great. I've been talking to a couple of teachers who have told some really excellent stories about things HoCo science teachers do in middle school - projects that reward the reasoning/process along with the outcome, etc.

    Thanks for sharing your experience so far! :)