George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teacher Development

Science: Sputnik Redux

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

    PREDICTION: A crisis in scientificliteracy will lead to a revitalization ofscience teaching.

    The warning signs are numerous: ManyAmerican students post disappointingscores on international tests in scienceand math. Unable to find enough qualified science teachers, school districtsresort to hiring out-of-field instructors. Adults' generalscience knowledge hasn't improved since the 1990s -- most have never heard of nanotechnology, and fewerthan half understand or accept the theory of evolution,according to research published by the NationalScience Foundation.

    "This is the crisis that's facing the country," saysBob Corcoran, president of the GE Foundation, whichhas dedicated $100 million to science and math educationin five test-case school districts. "The world is notbecoming less technical and less scientific -- it's becomingmuch more so. That's where the good jobs are."

    Get the best of Edutopia in your inbox each week.

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

    But advocates for science education say a senseof urgency hasn't yet reached the local level; surveysshow parents are largely satisfied with the science lessonstheir own children receive. "I've been saying for along time that we need another Sputnik," says GeraldWheeler, executive director of the National ScienceTeachers Association. "We need a way to get the attentionof parents and local schools."

    There's no shortage of big, national challenges thathave the potential to provide that dramatic Sputnikmoment; outsourcing, global warming, energy independence,and national security all spring to mind. Butlook for a wake-up call this year under more mundanecircumstances, now that under the No Child LeftBehind Act, for the first time, schools are required totest students in science.

    "We've gotten to the point where, in many cases,science isn't even being taught, especially in the elementaryschool and middle school levels, because ofthe pressure to increase performance on subjects thatare tested," says Shirley Malcolm, director of educationand human resources at the American Associationfor the Advancement of Science. That neglect is likelyto become disturbingly apparent on the new tests; it'slikely to be enough to inspire a groundswell of changeat the local level, and ultimately a seismic shift in nationalpriorities.

    Denise Kersten Wills writes from Washington, DC.

    What's Next > Social Networking