“There was more damage done to science education in this country than was ever thought possible because No Child Left Behind did not talk about science,” says Jan Morrison, executive director of theTeaching Institute for Excellence in STEM, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that designs STEM education programs for schools. “For years we’re going to suffer from that.”
Many also believe positions that Bush administration officials took, including questioning theories that are not controversial among scientists like climate change and evolution, misled the public on what science tells us about the natural world. In contrast, Obama’s advisors have been lauded by the scientific community for their discoveries. White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren is a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science who’s studied the causes of climate change; Eric Lander, co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, is one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project; and Harold Varmus, the other co-chair, is a former head of the National Institutes of Health who won a Nobel Prize for identifying genes that can lead to cancer.
The Obama administration’s focus on reforming the American school system as a whole—the four changes it’s pushing are higher common standards, new ways of paying and retaining teachers, using data to inform decisions and turning around low-performing schools—may do as much to improve science education as the STEM-boosting initiatives the government is funding, says Michael Lach, a special assistant for STEM issues at the Education Department.
“A lot of the work in the past has thought that we can reform STEM education without really tackling the existing education system,” he says. “You can’t.”
Science educators and researchers consider these four areas particularly ripe for reform:
There’s a growing consensus that students study too many science topics, but not in enough depth. “Many existing national, state and local standards and assessments, as well as the typical curricula in use in the United States, contain too many disconnected topics given equal priority,” a 2006 report from the National Research Council found. The NRC recently launched a project to write a new set of national standards with the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other groups that will identify a more manageable set of essential concepts that students must understand. The NRC’s previous science education standards, published in 1996, have strongly influenced state standards.
Sixty-five percent of scientists and science graduate students said their interest in science began before middle school, according to a study in the March 2010 International Journal of Science Education. Women were more likely to report that their interest was sparked by school-related activities, while most men said trying experiments at home and reading science fiction inspired them.
STEM education experts want to see more inquiry and problem-solving in science classrooms, especially at the high school level. The College Board is revising its AP science courses, beginning with biology, to reduce emphasis on memorizing facts and promote understanding of the scientific process through inquiry-based laboratories. In districts where in-school time is consumed with reading and math, after-school programs that give students opportunities to experiment can provide a similar boost, says Shirley Malcom, head of education and human resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “It does not substitute, but in a pinch, it’s better than nothing,” she says.
Not enough science majors teach science. Forty percent of fifth grade students in 2004 were taught math and science by teachers with a degree or certificate in those fields, federal data show. Only about one-third of high school physics teachers have a major in physics or physics education, the American Association of Physics Teachers reports. The National Science Teachers Association has long pushed to pay science teachers more than teachers in other subject areas to attract science majors away from industry jobs. “We need to get more scientists more connected to the teaching community,” says the Malcom of the AAAS. “The teaching community has not been perceived as the front lines of the scientific enterprise, but it is.”
Read this report at the Hechinger Report.