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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Science: Sputnik Redux

Science is next on the NCLB test list, and it's time for another wake-up call.
By Denise Kersten Wills

PREDICTION: A crisis in scientific literacy will lead to a revitalization of science teaching.

The warning signs are numerous: Many American students post disappointing scores on international tests in science and math. Unable to find enough qualified science teachers, school districts resort to hiring out-of-field instructors. Adults' general science knowledge hasn't improved since the 1990s -- most have never heard of nanotechnology, and fewer than half understand or accept the theory of evolution, according to research published by the National Science Foundation.

"This is the crisis that's facing the country," says Bob Corcoran, president of the GE Foundation, which has dedicated $100 million to science and math education in five test-case school districts. "The world is not becoming less technical and less scientific -- it's becoming much more so. That's where the good jobs are."

Policy makers, education groups, and corporate America are paying attention, thanks in part to an eye-opening 2007 National Academies report. "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future" warns that the United States is losing prominence in science and technology just as those fields are becoming increasingly vital to the global economy.

But advocates for science education say a sense of urgency hasn't yet reached the local level; surveys show parents are largely satisfied with the science lessons their own children receive. "I've been saying for a long time that we need another Sputnik," says Gerald Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. "We need a way to get the attention of parents and local schools."

There's no shortage of big, national challenges that have the potential to provide that dramatic Sputnik moment; outsourcing, global warming, energy independence, and national security all spring to mind. But look for a wake-up call this year under more mundane circumstances, now that under the No Child Left Behind Act, for the first time, schools are required to test students in science.

"We've gotten to the point where, in many cases, science isn't even being taught, especially in the elementary school and middle school levels, because of the pressure to increase performance on subjects that are tested," says Shirley Malcolm, director of education and human resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That neglect is likely to become disturbingly apparent on the new tests; it's likely to be enough to inspire a groundswell of change at the local level, and ultimately a seismic shift in national priorities.

Denise Kersten Wills writes from Washington, DC.

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Treana Hickey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

While it's great to hope that testing science will increase national test scores and get national attention on the lack of science education, school districts and principles are no where near the place where science is given the same attention as reading and math. The testing culture has even diminished the importance of writing scores because reading and math primarily count for the Annual Yearly Progress of schools.
I do hope that science will eventually get the national attention and focus of teachers that it deserves. Moreover, I hope that science learning will positively affect student's critical thinking skills.

Jillian Bowman 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

With such a major focus on reading and math, there is seemingly no time left in the school day for science education. This is a well-known fact. And I do not think that some Sputnik-like event needs to occur for people to open their eyes and welcome change in education. People know how terrible American schools are. The problem is that there are so many problems, it is tough to know where to begin, and what exactly will improve education in the long run. But not all hope is lost...

After seeing a few virtual classrooms incorporate science into every day lessons, I am convinced there must be a way to move beyond a limited 2-subject education. There are a world of possibilities for educational enhancement by teaching core subjects like reading and math (and writing, and social skills, too!) by using science as the foundation from which all other subjects would stem. As I learned by watching a video on one school's on-site garden, you can use vegetable-growing to teach everything from ecology, to math, all in a cooperative learning environment that encourage the students to practice appropriate behaviors. But, this is of course easier said than done. Schools need to hire highly intelligent and motivated teachers to lead these classrooms to success, and that only comes with support and financial resources from districts and the state. So, although it is possible to bring science into the classroom to engage the students with wonderful information and experiences, our educational system is rather faulty, and often settles on less-than-acceptable standards.

Roby Chatterji's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think both Jillian and Treana have hit something crucial about the way our schools operate. Until we find it tangetially beneficial, meaning until we can actually see the results of science education in funding or School Growth Points, we will as a district and ultimately a nation put science to the backburner. As Jillian pointed out, the problem is so multi-faceted, that it is difficult to figure out a starting point. Often I find that my students' inability to read well stops them from trying to understand the big picture. They find a word or two that is new to them and all of a sudden, they shut down and do not try and make sense of what they are reading. Also, as Treana pointed out too, even writing is considered less of a priority. So again, the base knowledge for creating and expressing questions and thoughts, which is a fundamental aspect of science, is not being stressed either. So, I'm not sure it's necessarily money that needs to be dumped into the schools - I firmly believe we need more people. We need a lower teacher to student ratio, a more streamlined approach to learning with specialized teachers earlier, and a set block that cannot be shifted in terms of time given to each subject each day.

gloria Bolton's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You are right. Not only AYP but for determining IQ! But...hope is on the horizon. Tennessee new standards and graduation requirements are examples of that hope. Also, a president who recognizes out loud the importance of science and technology for the advancement of our country and children's future is encouraging.

We must also improve teaching training programs and support for top notch math, science, and technology programs in our middle and high schools.

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