Sep 29 2010

Surprise – Science Education Stinks!

Thankfully, NeuroLogica is working again, our bandwidth has been widened, WordPress has been tweaked, and I’m looking forward to getting back to my regular schedule of blogging (Thanks to Mike Lacelle for his hard work getting everything online again.)

I thought I would start with this item regarding science education in the US – Report: Poor science education impairs U.S. economy. It’s yet another depressing report about the sad state of science education. The US is also not alone – the UK is considering gutting support for science, and other countries are lagging as well.

The generally accepted version of history is that in the 1950s, following Sputnik, nationalism and fear of competition from the USSR spawned an era of heavy investment in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). This ultimately resulted in the science and technology boom in the US in the following decades.

But in the last couple of decades support for STEM has lagged, and so has the quality of science education. This latest report concludes:

•U.S. mathematics and science K-12 education ranks 48th worldwide.

•49% of U.S. adults don’t know how long it takes for the Earth to circle the sun.

•China has replaced the United States as the world’s top high-technology exporter.

Nationalistic impulses aside – this is not good for the future. Almost half of Americans do not know the Earth takes a year to circle the sun. In my opinion this is not a random bit of science trivia. This indicates a rather profound lack of understanding of the basic structure of the universe, which in turn (in my opinion) indicates a severe lack of curiosity or a contentment with being mystified by the basic realities of nature.

I am also not convinced the problem is merely a lack of funding. My daughters go to a well-funded public school in a relatively affluent part of the country. So far, I have not been impressed with their science education. I think the entire approach (at least in grade school) is lacking. Mostly science has been taught by teachers with a general background, and with a highly variable (and inadequate, in my opinion) personal knowledge and enthusiasm toward science.

My daughter in second grade will get 1 hour of science every other week or so, and it is not even clear to me what the goals of this year are. My older daughter has been subjected to worthless exercises meant to teach experimental method, and other projects of dubious value.

It seems that the emphasis has shifted to “exploring” science – but as a result important meat is being left out. Further, I have noticed that information is taught largely in isolation, and students are not given an understanding of how to apply their knowledge. I do not get the sense they are building a body of knowledge and cognitive skills.

I have largely taken responsibility for my own daughters’ science education, so I am not concerned for them.  When I teach them about science, it also gives me a window into what they are learning (and not learning) at school. I don’t get the sense that they are being made to think about science is a practical and insightful way – learning basic principles and the facts that establish those principles. When I ask them questions like,  “how do we know” – I get the sense no one else has ever asked them that question.

If the US is serious about improving science education we need to do more than just increase funding. It seems to me we need to review the entire system of science education. Further we need to get away from the education culture that seems to have eroded the quality of science education over the last few decades. We should enlist the aid of actual working scientists who have demonstrated a talent and passion for education, to design science curricula that will meet our goals.

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