Science in Our Schools

Science in Our Schools

A new Academy initiative seeks to bring new learning opportunities to New York City's science educators.

To Americans, a recent paragraph in Science may at first seem unsurprising. It reads:

"In today's economic crisis, the disinterest of [our] youth in scientific careers and the public's poor understanding of science greatly threaten [our] future at a time when science and logical problem-solving skills are critical. Yet the performance of [our] young people on science tests ... is barely average, and many students leave middle school being illiterate in science. Moreover, the content of science education is often questioned and even disparaged."

Sound familiar? Yes, except this paragraph is not about America. Pierre Lena of the French Academy of Sciences wrote it ("Europe Rethinks Education," Science, October 23, 2009) to express his frustration about the failure of education systems throughout Europe.

Even in India and China—countries that have arguably saved Europe and the United States from an intolerably leaky pipeline of new scientists—leaders worry about these issues. For example, India realizes it cannot achieve the status of a world-leading innovator unless it can tap into its "youth dividend." Unlike in China, where enormous amounts of money and energy are being invested in education reform for a one-child-per-family base, in India 40 percent of the population is under age 15. The Indian Prime Minister's solution? Turn this youthful population into an asset by nurturing an educated class of unprecedented size, a large subset of which will be innovative scientists and engineers.

I provide this necessarily superficial global overview to introduce the special content in this issue of our magazine. Editor Adrienne Burke has put together a series of articles on science education, and one of the special things she gets to describe is how the generosity of two pairs of esteemed Academy members, has led your Academy back into the service of New York City high school science educators.

You will learn about the brand new science educators' initiative that has been funded by Academy Governor for Life Herb Kayden and his highly accomplished pharmacologist wife, Gabrielle Reem, and the founders of the Pamela B. and Thomas C. Jackson Charitable Fund, Penny and Thomas Campbell Jackson. The nascent effort has also attracted the support of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The goal is to "hug" our city's beleaguered science educators. We know how isolated they are and how demoralized they can become. Thanks to the generosity of the Kaydens and Mr. Jackson, up to 1,300 New York City science teachers will be honored with full memberships in the Academy, where they can participate in scores of professionally useful events and engage with our city's great researchers and the scholars who visit us from all over the world. The Academy will host get-togethers for them on topics of their choosing to help them become the best science educators they can be.

The launch of the Academy's initiative coincides with the announcement of President Obama's "Educate to Innovate" campaign, which aims to improve the participation and performance of America's students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Our first response to the President's call to action to address this national priority is a program that will allow educators to recharge their scientific batteries and to exchange their experiences of classroom challenges and best practices. Our science educators will direct this program for their own benefit. And we will expect many individuals and institutions to support them for the long-haul. The New York City Department of Education's partnership in this initiative gives me hope that this project can be a tremendous success, as does the enthusiasm we have already elicited from foundations, companies, and well-heeled Academy Members.

Unlike in November 2002, when I arrived at the New York Academy of Sciences to discover that we had just over 200 student members, today in the greater New York area alone we have 6,500 graduate student and post-doc members! These individuals have invigorated our Academy and shown us the power of this institution as a tool for mentoring and career development.

Further hope for the future of science education in New York comes in the form of a small but powerful committee that has formed with the support of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Led by State University of New York Chancellor (and new Academy Governor) Nancy Zimpher, along with the experienced and savvy American Museum of Natural History President Ellen Futter and City University of New York Chancellor Matt Goldstein, this committee has dedicated itself to removing the decades of roadblocks that have prevented formal and informal programs from reforming STEM education. I'm proud to have been asked to be a member of this committee, and I will report back to you on progress that I hope we will make.

Returning to India for a moment, imagine my admiration to learn from that country's Department of Science & Technology Secretary, Thirumalachari Ramasami, that his ministry has funded a science prize for 11- and 12-year-olds in every district in his country. The Ministry funds not just the prize itself, but underwrites local publicity about the winners who are supported all the way to post-graduate school if they stick with science. You see the agenda that awaits us, not merely in New York but in the U.S., Europe, and throughout the world. Who will champion the value of science education if not you and us?

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Ellis Rubinstein
President & CEO