No one can afford to be scientifically illiterate.
When Americans don’t learn the basics of science, we can’t make good choices based on a solid understanding of how the world around us (and inside us) works. We risk making decisions based on advertising and propaganda instead of evidence. We become vulnerable to misinformation and manipulation by powerful interests. Not only does this lack of education negatively affect an individual’s quality of life, it can negatively affect us all as a society, and leaves us vulnerable as a nation.
As Belle Boggs wrote in her Slate article on the state of American science education:
Much recent discussion about the importance of STEM subject education has focused on job training, on preparing our kids and our country to compete in high-stakes and high-income professions…(but) the majority of students in an average fifth-grade classroom will not become professional scientists or engineers.
Every one of them, however, will need to understand skills and ideas connected to the principles of science—what a plant needs to grow, how to read nutrition and medication labels, what it means when their state considers hydraulic fracturing or offshore drilling. Their understanding of these principles will determine how long they live, and how well.
The National Research Council’s Board on Science Education goes a bit deeper:
Science and engineering — significant parts of human culture that represent some of the pinnacles of human achievement—are not only major intellectual enterprises but also can improve people’s lives in fundamental ways.
Although the intrinsic beauty of science and a fascination with how the world works have driven exploration and discovery for centuries, many of the challenges that face humanity now and in the future—related, for example, to the environment, energy, and health—require social, political, and economic solutions that must be informed deeply by knowledge of the underlying science and engineering.
Understanding science and engineering, now more than ever, is essential for every American citizen. Science, engineering, and the technologies they influence permeate every aspect of modern life. Indeed, some knowledge of science and engineering is required to engage with the major public policy issues of today as well as to make informed everyday decisions, such as selecting among alternative medical treatments or determining how to invest public funds for water supply options.
In addition, understanding science and the extraordinary insights it has produced can be meaningful and relevant on a personal level, opening new worlds to explore and offering lifelong opportunities for enriching people’s lives.
In these contexts, learning science is important for everyone, even those who eventually choose careers in fields other than science or engineering.
Parents and educators agree that science learning should start early.
From a report by West Ed and the Lawrence Hall of Science on the state of California public elementary school science education:
- 7 in 10 people say that learning science should begin in elementary school in order for students to succeed in high school.
- 77% of California elementary school principals surveyed believe that providing all students a strong background in science is essential, with an additional 22% reporting that this is very important.
- 92% of California elementary principals surveyed believed that science education should begin in kindergarten, with 100% of elementary principals stating that science education should begin no later than third grade.
What should we be teaching?
The National Research Council’s Board on Science Education wrote in A Framework for K-12 Science Education:
High-quality science education must include opportunities for K–8 students to do the following:
- Learn about what scientists really do
- Learn and use the language of science
- Reason scientifically (e.g., engage in causal and mechanistic explanations of natural and physical phenomena, provide explanations based on evidence)
- Engage in the practices of science
- Build on prior knowledge, interest, and experience
- Learn core concepts related to big ideas in science (e.g., atomic molecular theory of matter, evolutionary theory, cell theory) presented according to an understanding about the way children learn and build knowledge about these concepts.
The overarching goal of our framework for K–12 science education is to ensure that by the end of 12th grade, all students have some appreciation of the beauty and wonder of science; possess sufficient knowledge of science and engineering to engage in public discussions on related issues; are careful consumers of scientific and technological information related to their everyday lives; are able to continue to learn about science outside school; and have the skills to enter careers of their choice, including (but not limited to) careers in science, engineering, and technology.
When should we start teaching science?
Elementary school aged kids are curious about everything, and educationally adventurous. They ask endless questions about what things are made of, and how they work. This is the time to start providing good answers!
To strengthen our system of science education, we must establish a strong foundation in students early. Although some have argued that young children are not ready to learn “real” science, the consensus among cognitive scientists is as follows:
All young children have the intellectual capability to learn science. Even when they enter school, young children can have rich knowledge of the natural world, demonstrate causal reasoning, and are able to discriminate between reliable and unreliable sources of knowledge. In other words, children come to school with the cognitive capacity to engage in serious ways with the enterprise of science.
I’ve taught elementary school kids the basics of botany, chemistry, physics, cells, our immune system, and the circulatory system. Science isn’t memorization for an exam, it’s just fun. Science isn’t about parroting back every step in the Krebs cycle, it’s about big ideas. Science is a thinking tool, for everyone to use. Young children feel connected to science, and rightly see it as a way to better understand the world around them. A practical science education sets learners up for success in the future, by consistently building on their knowledge, experiences and interests in science from an early age. Science isn’t just an academic skill, it’s a life skill.
We are failing to provide even the minimum of basic science education.
The study by West Ed and the Lawrence Hall of Science found that:
- 56% of California elementary school principals admit that their students are not receiving a quality science education.
- 40% of California elementary teachers spend less than an hour total on science instruction each week.
- In a study of San Francisco Bay Area public elementary schools, 80% of elementary teachers spend less than an hour total on science instruction each week! Yes, in the Bay Area, home of Silicon Valley, hub of technology and innovation in so many areas, with a wide array of universities and museums…80% of our elementary teachers spend less than one hour per week on teaching science.
- California sets no minimum for how much time elementary schools spend teaching science. Science curriculum publishers suggest 90 to 135 minutes of elementary science instruction per week. Compare this to the weekly instruction hour statistics above.
- A significant number of elementary teachers (16% in the Bay Area study) teach no science to their students at all.
- 90% of elementary classrooms offer no high-quality science learning, as defined above.
- 60% of districts have no staff dedicated to elementary science.
- 85% of elementary teachers received no science training in the past three years.
Test scores reflect the lack of attention to science education.
- In national tests, the state’s fourth-graders ranked at the bottom, along with students from Alabama, Mississippi and Hawaii.
- Test scores are even lower for Latino and African-American students. Fewer than 10 percent scored proficient or above.
- The West Ed study recommended that California train and support teachers, update science materials, and teach science starting in kindergarten. But will taxpayers get behind that? Is there the political will to fund it?
It’s crucial for kids to define themselves as successful at science at a young age. But according to current research, only one in ten California elementary school students are considered proficient in science. This matches other findings that only 10% of teachers are offeringhigh-quality science learning experiences. Students do not have the opportunities they need to participate in high-quality science learning experiences because the conditions that would support such learning are rarely in place.
Why aren’t we doing a better job teaching science?
The reasons underlying the lack of high-quality learning opportunities in the state’s elementary schools are many. Across the state, teachers do not have time in the school day to teach science. Teachers do not feel prepared to teach science — especially in comparison to the support they get to teach English language arts and mathematics. Too many districts and schools do not have the resources (staff, time, or funds) to provide professional science training and development. Moreover, high-quality science teaching sometimes requires specialized materials, which teachers also say they lack. And again, districts and schools are often too strapped to provide these resources.
Teachers also need systematic feedback on their students’ progress in science, but science assessment systems do not exist in most California school districts. These shortcomings are rooted in part in the state and federal accountability systems that place the greatest emphasis on English language arts and mathematics, which consequently receive the greater share of political and practical attention. In addition, over the past decade, the infrastructure for supporting science education in California has eroded significantly.
The end result is that California does not have a coherent system that enables teachers and schools to consistently provide students with quality science learning experiences.We all pay the price for this.
It’s a nationwide problem.
If you’re feeling smug because you’re not in California, and you’re assuming that things are much better elsewhere…California is not the only state or country facing a failure of basic science education. We just have data to look at for California.
Nationwide, science education statistics are grim. From the National Science Foundation:
- A majority of American 4th grade students failed to reach the “proficient” level on the NAEP science assessment in 2009.
…and school resources are vastly unequal
- African Americans (89%) and Latinos (75%) are most likely to say students should have more science education than they had when they were in school.
- The average science scores for were at least 28 points lower for black, Hispanic, and American Indian/Alaska Native students than white and Asian students.
- The average science score of 4th grade black students was below the basic level in 2009.
- Schools in wealthier neighborhoods are able to raise funds for science programs, camps and workshops through parent donations and volunteer fundraising. Poor schools too often can’t raise enough resources for “extras” like science education.
What about adults? Don’t kids just learn science eventually?
The Pew Research Center is doing some interesting research on what the adult American public does and doesn’t know about basic science, by asking adults 12 questions about a number of different scientific topics. (You can take the quiz on their website at the link above to test your own knowledge).
Only 6% of quiz takers got all 12 questions right. White men scored the highest out of all the groups. Women scored better in biology than they did in chemistry or physics. The results basically reflect who receives the most educational resources in our society. Imagine if we could even the playing field and train everyone in basic science concepts, instead of just some.
So how do we solve this?
It’s hard enough to change even one local school, much less a state or national educational system. Where will we find the political will to provide adequate resources? Strengthening science education has to be a priority. But how? If we solve the problem for one school, how can we replicate our solution elsewhere?
And what about those adults who already missed out on a quality science education? Do we just write them off? If your school science education had a lot of gaps and holes in it, then what?
My name is Laura Hamilton. I’m a scientist, entrepreneur, web designer, educator, problem-solver, and mom. I have a B.S. degree in Ecology, and part of a Master’s in Evolutionary and Systematic Biology. I taught science classes and workshops to elementary school students as a volunteer for 6 years. I wrote lesson plans, created hands-on activities, designed experiments, did demos, organized science fairs, and created lunchtime science clubs. I’ve worked with teachers to improve the quality of their lessons and activities. I’ve been on task forces to boost science in schools. I’ve homeschooled my own children in science when they weren’t getting any science at school from their teacher that year.
All this has been a hard uphill slog. There are so many systemic obstacles to change. In the meantime, we are in dire need of improved science education in the US right now. How can we fix this problem? And who can fix it?
In addition to the need for trained scientists, mathematicians and engineers, and nonprofessional workers with an understanding of complex technological equipment, we need widespread understanding of science among the general population. The vitality of a democracy assumes a certain “core of knowledge” shared by everyone which serves as a unifying force. It is fundamental to the effectiveness of our democratic system that our citizens be able to make informed judgments on the more and more complex issues of scientific and technological public policy. Decisions must be made which are of critical importance to our health and safety.
There can be no doubt that scientific literacy, a solid understanding of science and mathematics, is now more important than ever before–and there is irrefutable evidence that the skills of our youth are not only not progressing with the increasing demands–but actually are deteriorating at an alarming rate. Besides our need for improvement in pre-college education in science, there is need for the broad-scale addition of science courses for non-science majors at the post-secondary level. While our nation’s needs for both an educated citizenry and a technologically trained workforce have grown by leaps and bounds, our ability to satisfy those needs has diminished. We must act now to reverse this self-destructive trend.
We all have an important stake in the success of our education system, and every part of our society must be involved in meeting the challenge.
— Glenn Seaborg, Nobel Laureate, research scientist, UC Berkeley Chancellor, Co-founder and Chairman of the Lawrence Hall of Science. From “A Nation At Risk Revisited”
Every part of our society must be involved in meeting the challenge. That part has stuck in my mind. We can’t wait around for someone else to solve this problem. We can’t wait for resources to become available. We have to do something, all of us.
I’m not a Nobel Laureate. I’m not a professional educator. I don’t have star-studded credentials. But I am an idea person, I’m a creative person, I understand people, I understand science, I can design and build websites. I’m good at explaining things in a way that people can understand, and when I teach science, the students really enjoy it and absorb it. I’m extremely practical. I’m stubborn. I’m a hard worker. I’m a blue-sky thinker. So I’m willing to take a stab at this.
I think most of the problems and challenges of our time are directly related to the widespread lack of scientific literacy and critical thinking skills. I see people at all levels making bad decisions every day, because they simply don’t know any better. They don’t understand how things work, and they don’t have adequate thinking tools to make sense of what they are told by others.
After several years of mulling over how to improve this situation, and seeing endless suggestions made to put adequate resources into teacher training (which is an excellent idea, but I’ve lost hope that it will ever happen), here is my idea.
Let’s create a self-paced elementary science curriculum online, accessible by anyone with an internet connection, on any device. Let’s make it video-based, and funny, and clever, and thought-provoking.
Let’s start teaching at the very beginning, starting with simple principles of how to sort, organize and classify. Then let’s build on that foundation over time, bit by bit, covering all the basic fundamentals of biology, chemistry, physics, earth science, critical thinking, and the scientific process.
Let’s give everyone the opportunity to build a knowledge base of practical, real-world science, no matter what their age, ability, race, gender, religion, location, financial resources, or educational status.
Let’s make it work in a classroom setting OR for use at home. If teachers can’t teach science, they can assign Science101 lessons for homework. They can follow along with the basic curriculum in class and do the hands-on activities together, with a minimum of lesson planning and prep. If teachers are not available, students can teach themselves at home…or anywhere! Parents can use it for homeschooling. Adult learners can study at their own pace, on their own schedule, at no cost. Everyone can be assured of a comprehensive science education with no curriculum gaps, from excellent and passionate instructors. It would be ideal to train every elementary teacher in America to also be a great science teacher, but why not use technology to bring the science teachers to wherever they are needed, at low cost?
Let’s use American ingenuity and innovation. Let’s be leaders in education again. We can do this.
Are you in? Do you want to be part of this effort? We will need testers and helpers of all kinds to make this happen. You don’t even need to be science-y! Whatever your skill set, we can put you to use. If you just want to stay informed, that’s OK too.
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