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Science Education Crisis Intervention

Science Education Crisis Intervention

Acts of Congress, research studies, passionate scientific community leaders, and a new Academy initiative all aim to stem the collapse of American STEM education.

On October 4, 1957, a rocket launched from the steppes of Kazakhstan delivered the first artificial satellite into Earth's orbit, giving the Soviet Union an early lead in the defining technological competition of the Cold War. In response, a new generation of American students rushed into careers in science and engineering. Less than 12 years later, this home-grown talent pool helped land the Apollo 11 spacecraft on the moon, planting the Stars and Stripes in lunar soil and establishing the dominance of American science.

Or not.

The Sputnik story has become one of the most enduring myths in American science education, but it's mostly fiction. While Sputnik did spark widespread public fear and inspire a strong political response in the form of the National Defense Education Act of 1958, the actual number of science and engineering enrollments at colleges remained virtually flat throughout the 1960s. Instead of a home-grown talent pool, the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs relied heavily on engineers educated in Europe. The Apollo landing was a thoroughly impressive engineering feat, but it produced little new science.

Indeed, as a long succession of international studies and government reports have argued, American science education largely stagnated after World War II: The average American public school graduate is scientifically illiterate, they say.

On October 23, 2009, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan addressed President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, citing disturbing statistics about the state of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education in the United States: "In science, our eighth graders are behind their peers in eight countries... Four countries—Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Finland—outperform U.S. students on math, science and all other subjects."

Secretary Duncan outlined a number of goals that must be reached in order to close the achievement gap and improve American students' comprehension of the STEM disciplines.

Aided by this new Federal push for STEM education, experts from diverse fields and political viewpoints are now trying to address the longstanding failure. In the process, they are asking fundamental questions about the way America educates its citizens: how worried does the U.S. need to be about science education, why has it been so bad for so long, and what can be done to improve it?

Be afraid — or not very afraid

Anyone studying American science education must immediately confront a paradox: despite decades of documenting its own weaknesses in science education at the K-12 level, the nation has remained a world leader in scientific and technological achievement. If the U.S. is so awful at teaching science, why are Americans still so good at practicing it?

One explanation is the time lag inherent in scientific training. "I've always called the whole situation the quiet crisis," says Shirley Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. "It's quiet because it takes years to educate a world-class scientist or engineer. It starts with the very early educational years and goes all the way through levels of advanced study," she says. As a result, problems in the public school system could take a generation to manifest themselves in university laboratories and corporate R&D campuses.

Imported talent also masks the issue. "After World War II something like 70 percent of the world's economic output was centered here in the United States," says Jim Gates, professor of physics at the University of Maryland in College Park. "That meant that as a society we could count on the brightest minds from around the world seeking opportunity to come to us because we were the place where the most opportunity was apparent."

In recent years, though, educators have begun worrying about two additional trends. "There are stories of very talented colleagues from Asia who have essentially decided to re-patriate either to India or China ... and this is a phenomenon I think we've seen in academia increasing for the last several years," says Gates. At the same time, emerging economies such as China and India have made enormous investments in science and engineering education in order to mine rich veins of talent in their immense populations.

"...what we're really talking about is innovation capacity."
— Shirley Jackson

It's been a hard threat to quantify, though. The 2005 National Academy of Sciences report "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" presented some attention-grabbing statistics. For example, the report asserted that in 2004 China graduated 600,000 new engineers, India 350,000, and the U.S. only 70,000. However, the committee's methods for deriving those figures came under fire from critics who pointed out that the definition of "engineer" varied considerably from one country to another. Correcting that error halved the number of Chinese engineers, doubled the American number, and showed that the U.S. still had a commanding lead in engineers per capita.

More recently, a report released in October 2009 by investigators at Rutgers and Georgetown argued that U.S. universities are graduating more than enough scientists and engineers, but many choose jobs outside of their major field. According to that report, which was sponsored by the Sloan Foundation, the perceived shortage of technical expertise is more likely due to American companies' unwillingness to pay for it.

That viewpoint has its critics, of course. "I'm well familiar with the Sloan study, but what we're really talking about is innovation capacity," says Jackson, who helped write the 2005 National Academy report. She adds that the real problem will manifest itself over the next few years, as the first rounds of baby boomers begin to leave the workforce. "We have a population of people ... from the various sectors who are beginning to retire, and those retirements are beginning to accelerate." While current employment statistics might show plenty of scientists and engineers for available positions, Jackson and others expect the impending retirements to alter that.

Toward a science-literate public

While debate about whether the U.S. is adequately training the next generation of professional scientists rages on, it's hard to disagree with those who argue that the country needs to improve the scientific literacy of its lay public. "We seem to accept that people need to be able to read and write in order to be educated, to be able to function in society, and that is obviously critical, but what we have to also recognize is that people need certain baseline mathematical skills and some knowledge of science and technology in order to be literate," says Jackson.

Gates concurs: "Having a scientifically literate public is going to be critical as our nation wrestles with problems whose solutions seem inherently to involve science and technology." In particular, he cites climate change, where scientists have had considerable difficulty explaining a well-established phenomenon to politicians and citizens who have little understanding of basic math and physics. "Having a public that is scientifically illiterate doesn't bode well for the future of our country," he says.

Other education reform proponents are more blunt. "I regard the collapse of math and science education as the greatest long-term strategic problem the United States has, and likely to end our role as the leading country in the world," says former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Famous for engineering the 1994 Republican Congressional victories, Gingrich, a former college history professor, is outspoken about the need to reform a public education system that he says values certification over knowledge. "We ... don't have physicists teaching physics, we don't have chemists teaching chemistry, and we don't have biologists teaching biology," he says.

Highlighting the political breadth of the issue, Gingrich recently accompanied Education Secretary Duncan and Reverend Al Sharpton on a tour of high schools in Philadelphia. Despite their radically different positions on other issues, the three agreed that American science education urgently needs help.

Others point out that improving public science education is also a prerequisite to training more scientists. "Without that ... educational base, we don't have the base to draw indigenous talent from, talent that may then actually become the next generation of scientists and engineers, so they're two issues, but they are linked," says Jackson.

Resistance is feudal

There is no shortage of potential causes for the nation's scientific ignorance. Indeed, critics of the educational system often focus on whichever problems seem most relevant to their agenda. Advocates of charter schools like to point to powerful teachers' unions and administratively bloated school systems. Privatizing education with charter schools, they argue, would give these bureaucracies nimble, efficient competition, forcing the public system to reform or die.

Others emphasize staffing problems instead, such as the tendency for science teachers to have majored in education rather than science, and a transient labor pool in which a third of K-12 teachers leave the profession within five years of being hired. In their view, both public and charter schools must draw and retain more highly trained science teachers.

Still others point to the balkanization of the American educational system, which allows each state and even each school district, wide latitude in setting curricula and standards. "Most developed countries have not just national tests, but national curricula," says Gates. "We can't say that the quality of education can differ in California and New York versus Wyoming and Florida," he adds. "We want to have a common, internationally competitive set of standards."

Getting more than 14,000 school districts in 50 states to agree on those standards, however, remains difficult. Gates has seen the problem firsthand from his seat on Maryland's school board. "School boards and superintendents basically have their own feifdoms," he says.

School districts aren't the only feudal systems. Getting the national-level education agencies to coordinate their activities has been a tall order. An analysis by the Department of Education found that in 2006, a dozen different Federal agencies spent a total of more than $3 billion on science education initiatives, but a lack of coordination often made the efforts redundant or counterproductive.

"...a very large percent of our teachers who teach math and science have neither certification nor a degree to teach those two subjects."
— Bart Gordon

To address some of these problems, Congressman Bart Gordon, D-TN, introduced the America COMPETES Act of 2007 which, among other things, established the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship. The fund, which Congress endowed with $115 million this year, encourages math and science majors to become teachers, and current math and science teachers to go back for more training. "We found that a very large percent of our teachers who teach math and science have neither certification nor a degree to teach those two subjects, so we have set up programs to help with that competency," says Gordon.

Gordon, who chairs the House Committee on Science and Technology, also wrote the STEM Act of 2009. That bill aims to improve the coordination of Federal STEM education efforts, and make them more user-friendly. "We did some digging and found that there were a number of STEM education programs all across the Federal government ... that you couldn't find just by looking down a table of contents, you really had to dig in, and so we felt that by having better coordination, that we would be able to get better leverage there," says Gordon. The STEM Act passed the House in June, and is now awaiting action in the Senate.

Besides streamlining the system, national standards and more unified Federal efforts could help nip some antiscientific trends, such as creationist school boards that attempt to undermine the central organizing principle of biology. American creationists, who preach a literal interpretation of the Bible, have often aligned themselves with conservative Republicans for political leverage.

The party is not of one mind on the issue, though. "There have been four parallel evolutions of sabre-toothed cats over the last 40 million years ... and you can see literally almost the exact same steps of adaptation. Now, it's very hard to look at that and not believe some kind of evolution occurs," says Gingrich. He adds that the lesson for educational policy is equally obvious: "I have no problem with creationism being taught as a philosophical or cultural course, as long as you teach evolution as a science course, because I think they're two fundamentally different things."

Reducing the attention deficit

Winning the argument for evolution in biology is only a small step toward reforming STEM education nationwide, though. Indeed, some critics of the current system advocate widespread and radical changes. Gingrich, fo example, suggests incentive programs to pay students for performance: "I propose in every state that we adopt a position that if you can graduate a year early, you get the extra cost of your 12th year as an automatic scholarship to either [vocational] school or college."

Others advocate much faster adoption of technology in the classroom. Jim Gates says the average modern science classroom has few technological advances over the classroom of 50 or 60 years ago. Instead of continuing to rely on textbooks and chalkboards, he suggests switching to electronic texts and presentations, and allowing teachers to download new material instantly as it becomes available. "We have this incredible technology that's remaking the world around us ... and to think that somehow education will be untouched by this revolution ... is extremely naive," he says.

Radical innovations certainly sound interesting, but the history of past reform efforts in American science education provides a sobering counterpoint. Early in the Clinton administration, for example, the National Science Foundation launched an ambitious program called Systemic Initiatives to help whole school systems make large-scale changes in science education. The initiatives achieved some notable successes in boosting science achievement, particularly in poor rural and urban districts.

Then, in 2002, Congress passed a mammoth set of reforms called No Child Left Behind. To fund NCLB projects, the NSF had to drain $160 million from the Systemic Initiatives budget, effectively sidelining the program less than 10 years after it had begun. NCLB, in turn, has been widely panned by educators, politicians, and scientists. Critics argue that NCLB's heavy emphasis on standardized testing has encouraged states and school districts to manipulate the tests rather than make genuine improvements. Because of this, NCLB is now set for its own overhaul, potentially shifting the science education agenda yet again.

This time, though, reformers have brought a new constituency into the discussion: state governors. Aided by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Governors' Association has now developed a STEM Education initiative, including grants to fund reform efforts in individual states. Such state-level programs could go a long way toward improving the system nationwide if they are properly coordinated. "We need to think about what can be done to knit together the range of activities across the local, state and Federal level that involve public, private, and academic sectors, and that's a challenge," says Jackson.

Scientists and engineers can also take heart from an interesting trend in college data: while the Space Race had little effect on the number of new enrollments in these fields, they spiked in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Various commentators have suggested that students were following an altruistic urge to solve pressing environmental and energy problems, which were just coming to the fore then, or that they simply wanted to improve their employability during an epic recession.

In either case, history seems primed to repeat itself. Both environmental degradation and skyrocketing unemployment are making headlines again, and science and engineering enrollments are once again on the rise.

How NYAS Supports Graduate Science Education

For nearly five years, the New York Academy of Sciences has been nurturing the next generation of scientists with a special program that provides professional development opportunities for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. The Science Alliance is a consortium of more than 35 universities, teaching hospitals, and independent research facilities committed to advancing the careers of students and postdocs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Serving more than 6,500 junior scientists worldwide, the Alliance provides programs and services focused on career education, development, and training. In addition to giving students access to all of the traditional benefits of Academy membership, Science Alliance offers exclusive live events, webinars, and a dedicated website as well as unparalleled opportunities for students to learn and network with individuals across institutions and disciplines, including many highly accomplished members.

Now, two Academy programs for physicists and chemists are also getting students involved in all aspects of planning, hosting, and presenting scientific meetings. The meetings are designed to provide graduate students and postdocs in the field of condensed matter physics a chance to forge new research collaborations.

One program is the "Gotham-Metro Condensed Matter Meeting." An inaugural event held in April 2009, and a second one held in November that drew 130 participants for a full day of lectures and poster presentations, were entirely run by graduate students and post-docs. A council of faculty-nominated graduate students from New York area universities developed content, invited speakers, and hosted the meeting at the Academy. The meetings will now be held once per semester.

Rebecca Flint, 28, a sixth-year hard-condensed-matter theory graduate student at Rutgers University, was handpicked by her advisor, Academy member Piers Coleman, to sit on the student steering committee for the Gotham-Metro group. She says her involvement in meetings planning has given her an alternate perspective on the duties of a professor. "As a graduate student you mostly do research; I'm not even teaching. You get a view of just one side of what it's like to be a professor," says Flint, who aspires to run her own lab after completing her PhD next year. "It's interesting to see what else you need to think about, and it's nice to get a view of something other than research."

Another way the Academy is nurturing graduate students is through involving them as members of a student steering committee for the Academy's Soft Materials Discussion Group. The group, headed by a faculty steering committee, regularly convenes investigators in the New York region with an interest in soft materials research and development, and provides a forum for exchanging ideas and news of recent advances among scientists, engineers, and other key stakeholders working in academia, industry, and non-for-profit entities. Now, six graduate students from City College, New York University, Queens College, Columbia University, and the College of Staten Island have joined with a faculty committee to select topics and choose speakers for meetings.

"The idea is to empower graduate students—provide them with opportunities for professional development and a chance to critically judge their own contributions and those of their peers," says Heidi Perry, the Academy's Program Manager for Physical Sciences, Engineering & Sustainability Initiatives.

The next meeting of the Soft Materials Discussion Group, "Soft Materials: The Future of Solar," will take place at the Academy on January 14, 2010, at 4:00 pm. The next Gotham-Metro Condensed Matter Meet is being planned for Spring 2010.

— Adrienne Burke

The Academy Steps up to Support Science Teachers

With the support of several generous and committed members and in partnership with the New York City Department of Education, the New York Academy of Sciences in November launched an initiative to serve science teachers in New York and beyond.

The Academy's New York City Science Education Initiative was unveiled on the heels of President Obama's announcement of a Federal campaign to improve the participation and performance of America's students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The Academy initiative aims to forge a community of science education professionals and provide a forum where they can convene, learn, and collaborate about science education policy, curriculum, and classroom best practices.

The initiative will also facilitate connections between education professionals and Academy members from the broader scientific research community. Seed funding of $130,000 from the Pamela B. and Thomas C. Jackson Fund and from Drs. Gabrielle Reem and Herbert Kayden will underwrite Academy memberships for as many as 1,300 high school teachers and cover the expenses for the Academy to host science educators' events. Another $20,000 from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation will support development of a dedicated educators' Website and underwrite Academy memberships for teachers in schools recognized for educational excellence by the Sloan Foundation.

"It's critical that science teachers have access to up-to-date resources and research in order to inform and inspire their students," says Kiryn Hoffman, the Academy's director of development who spearheaded fundraising for the new initiative. "They are challenged to stay at the forefront not only of scientific trends and breakthroughs, but also of the best methods to shape learning goals and strategies to actively engage students."

In September 2009, 28 New York City science education stakeholders gathered in the Academy's boardroom. Among the group was New York's Deputy Mayor for Education, Dennis Walcott. From the lively discussion emerged a proposal for how the Academy could serve the needs of New York's teachers and students.

Fernand Brunschwig

Fernand Brunschwig, a professor of science education at Empire State College, SUNY, is chairing the new initiative. Brunschwig says that from the time he was first introduced to the Academy many years ago by Don Cook, professor of science education at Bank Street College and a past chair of the Academy's Science Education Section, he has seen great potential for advancing science education through the Academy. The stakeholders' meeting presented a diversity of ideas, and, he adds "all in attendance agreed that it's a good time to make this effort."

Brunschwig led a steering committee meeting in November that brought several science educators together. The group agreed that science teachers could best be served by events that address classroom teaching issues specific to science teachers. "We're going to be guided by teachers—by those on the committee and others, as well as by the Department of Education, in trying to make events valuable and attractive," Brunschwig says. By virtue of being members of the Academy, teachers will also gain free admission throughout the year to more than 100 professional events in various scientific disciplines where they can build relationships with practicing research scientists.

The new initiative will also produce webinars and eBriefings targeted at science teachers, as well as online social networking and an online calendar that tracks events, workshops, and other programs elsewhere in the New York region specifically of interest to science education professionals.

Brunschwig envisions the initiative providing unique opportunities for educators to meet, interact, and collaborate with others from outside their school, institution, or region. As this magazine went to press, plans for the first science educators meeting of 2010 were being finalized and, Brunschwig was "still looking for dynamic, interesting, idea-laden individuals to be part of the steering committee," as well as for outstanding presenters and workshop leaders.

— Adrienne Burke

Alan Dove is a science writer and reporter for Nature Medicine, Nature Biotechnology, and Bioscience Technology. He also teaches at the NYU School of Journalism, and blogs at