Science101.us: a new option for universal American science education, compared to existing methods

We’ve talked about the need for improved US science education in our Science101.us mission statement. Many different methods of science education are being used, but they all have issues or resource limitations that keep them from being accessible to the majority of Americans. Let’s look at some of the current options out there, and how an online school can improve upon them.

WHERE CAN YOU CURRENTLY LEARN BASIC SCIENCE?

Elementary school teacher teaching scienceSchool
Starting in elementary school, every student should be taught a consistent and regular curriculum of high-quality science learning, either by a trained homeroom teacher or by a specialized science teacher.
Science journalPeer-reviewed journals
Journals present research findings directly from working scientists. Examples include Nature and Science.
National GeographicMedia
Science journalism online, in print, or on TV. Examples include National Geographic, Nautilus, Popular Science, IFL Science, Science Daily, and many others. They report stories about science and cover a variety of topics from different perspectives.
Museums
Exploratorium
There are many excellent science and natural history museums in the United States. Locally in the San Francisco Bay Area we have the California Academy of Sciences, the Tech Museum, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Exploratorium, the Lawrence Hall of Science, the Chabot Space and Science Center, and many others, where individuals and school groups can visit and learn about a number of topic
Teacher training
FOSS kits
There are several comprehensive pre-packaged lesson plans intended to help teachers teach science effectively, even without a science background. These are basically sets of instructions to teachers that describe how and what to teach, and are not designed for use by students directly.  They range in price from free to thousands of dollars. Some examples of the best programs would be FOSS Kits, Mystery Science, Amplify Science, and the AAAS Science NetLinks.
Self-guided tutorials
Khan Academy
Designed for users to educate themselves about science. At the present time of this writing, there is currently no comprehensive self-guided basic science curriculum available online, even for a fee.
Science lessons are either at an advanced level (they assume elementary science education has already happened), such as Khan Academy, or they just focus on a single science topic or category, such as YouTube tutorials (many of poor quality or with false information).
Self-guided tutorials
Science textbooks are available to the public for purchase as well, and would be included in this category, but assume some teacher participation in a classroom setting.
Kits
Steve Spangler Science and Amazon have a large selection of science kits, (although in a somewhat alarming number of kits the “science” involves creating slime). Tinker Crate offers a series tailored by age and interest.
Steve Spangler slime kit
Mad ScienceWorkshops
Summer camps, after-school, and homeschooling workshops run by franchises like Mad Science as well as by small local outfits like Rockit Science.

 

EVALUATION

The following evaluation is based on my own experiences working with teachers and students as science communicator and educator, school science task force member, mother of two children in public schools, consumer of science media/kits/lessons/toys, museum-goer and field trip chaperone, teacher of workshops, and curriculum planner.

Let’s look at the criteria for success, and see how the current methods measure up :

Method

Does it provide a comprehensive science education in all the main branches of science: biology, chemistry, physics, earth science, etc?

School If a student has excellent science teachers every year and is able to attend regularly, school will provide a solid educational foundation in all the branches of science.

But…most students don’t have excellent science teachers every year. Only 1 out of 10 elementary teachers are able to teach quality science on a regular basis. Science coverage in the elementary classroom is often left up to the individual teacher, with no minimum hours per week required. Teachers are pressed for time to teach other subjects. They are usually not given adequate training to teach science. Often they feel it is intimidating.

Journals If you read a very general science journal like Nature, it  can cover a very broad range of topics, especially if you are a regular subscriber.

But… journals are not meant to teach you about basic concepts or be comprehensive. Journals report the direct details of specific experiments. They are not aimed at an amateur or beginner audience.

Media Over a long period of time, you can learn a lot about a variety of things.

But… magazines and TV shows and other media programs are not an organized curriculum designed to give you a complete education.

Museums No.
Teacher training programs Yes, but only if you have a teacher to teach the lessons.
Self-guided lessons Yes, but none appear to exist. All existing lesson resources are for teachers to teach, not for students to learn directly. Khan Academy science curriculum starts at high school level, and does not offer lessons in elementary science.
Kits No, usually limited to one topic.
Workshops No, usually limited to one topic.
Science101.us Yes

 

Method

Is it accessible to students of all ages and income levels?

School Elementary level science classes are typically only available to students in elementary school. I have occasionally seen a basic science class on one or two topics offered through community programs, for a fee. If you are beyond elementary school age, if your elementary teacher is not also a science teacher, or if you have no financial resources, you are out of luck.
Journals All ages, yes. All income levels, no. Journal subscription rates run to the thousands of dollars per year.
Media Through the library, or through free non-subscription-based websites, yes.
Museums If you are local to the museum, then all ages, yes. All income levels, no. Larger, more prestigious science museums are typically quite expensive, with the average entry fee over $20.
Teacher training programs Price ranges from free for the AAAS Science NetLinks program (with a lot of prep required from the teacher) to Amplify (“Everything you need for a class of up to 32 students to learn about ecosystems, including the flow of energy, matter in ecosystems, and human impact. $1400”)
Self-guided lessons Theoretically yes.
Kits All ages yes. All income levels, no.
Workshops Usually limited by age, and a fee is charged.
Science101.us Yes to both. Accessible by all ages and income levels. You will need a device with an internet connection though.

 

Method

Provides hands-on experimentation and learning

School Yes, IF you have a good science teacher. Unfortunately only 1 out of 10 elementary students in California do.
Journals No.
Media No.
Museums Yes, many do.
Teacher training programs Yes, if you have an interested teacher with enough time in the schedule to present the material.
Self-guided lessons Khan Academy, no. Other lessons on individual topics do offer hands-on experimentation.
Kits Yes, most do, but they are often limited in their explanation of what the scientific concept is and how it relates to the activity. (See Steve Spangler)
Workshops Depends.
Science101.us This is a challenge for a web-based self-guided program, but every effort will be made to show and provide hands-on experiments and activities that the student can do at home, with simple, inexpensive, readily available materials.

Conclusion

I see a dire need for new avenues of science education, since none of the existing options is doing the job of providing a high quality science education for all Americans.

Science101.us is designed to fill the gaps at low cost, without requiring excessive resources from individuals, teachers, or school districts. We can easily afford to reach and educate everyone by combining science education with the power of basic internet technology and user experience design.