FEd November 1994 Newsletter - Scientists Have Important Roles, Responsibilities in Future of Science Education

November 1994



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Scientists Have Important Roles, Responsibilities in Future of Science Education

Bruce Alberts
President, National Academy of Sciences

There are times in the history of this country where circumstances combine in unintended ways to provide an unusual opportunity for change. These have usually been times in which some widely perceived crisis pulls us together as a people to address a challenge head on. I believe this to be the case for the challenge of public education. Moreover, scientists and engi- neers have a special part to play in the next decade, inasmuch as a revolution in science education, beginning in kindergarten, can serve as a wedge to drive a general K-12 education reform effort of great importance for the future of the United States.

Our institutions change only very slowly, reflecting the tremendous inertia inherent to all human affairs. But it is well past time to recognize that the accelerating impact of science and technology on everyone's life makes a basic understanding of science and mathematics an essential part of any education for the 21st century. Science must therefore become a core subject that is taught as "the fourth R" in every school year, starting in kindergarten.

I am not talking about science as most students currently experience it - as the dry memorization of science terms - but about science as an exciting and empowering experience in problem solving that takes advantage of the curiosity of young children and increases each student's understanding of the world.

This means that an enormous change must take place in our schools: not only must teachers find time for science in an already crowded curriculum, they must also learn new teaching skills to capitalize on the joy of discovery and build critical thinking skills. Unfortunately, these are learning experiences that most teachers have not experienced in school themselves.

Teachers are the key for any meaningful educational reform effort. Thus, for example, teachers must not only be made aware of the outstanding hands-on science curricula that have been developed in this country for elementary schools, but they must be introduced to this unfamiliar kind of science teaching by experienced teachers who have used this approach and are convinced of its value. The teachers must also be provided with the appropriate science materials by their districts, and they must be given the opportunity to improve their science teaching gradually through a combination of expert coaching and frequent discussions with their peers.

Scientists and engineers working in partnerships with local teachers represent an essential new force that will be required for effective science education reform. As explained in the accompanying sidebar by my colleague Jan Tuomi, a dynamic teacher with 20 years of experience, technical profes- sionals bring critically needed skills to this partnership. But to be effective, we scientists must first be willing to be educated about the opportunities and problems in our schools. This means that we must approach this problem with a humility that reflects how little most of us really understand about how children learn, as well as our respect for the tremendous energy, devotion and skill required to be a successful K-12 teacher in today's schools.

We also need to do something that comes very naturally to scientists and engineers, but is unfortunately all too rare in the education world; to focus on learning from the experience of others, so as to apply the elements that have been successful elsewhere to local science education reforms. In this way, we can help develop and refine a successful general strategy for reform that will be applicable to many different sites.

A revolutionary change in the way that school systems view science cannot occur in one or two years, and to some it may seem impossible to achieve in a lifetime. But we know from experience in a variety of localities that a dramatic reform is possible on a 4 to 6 year time frame. When I examine the ways that local scientist and engineers have been able to catalyze major advances in K-12 science education, I am especially struck by the opportunity for a major improvement of science education in elementary school.

My message is therefore a simple one: if you are motivated enough to devote four hours a week to this important national issue for the next five years, I urge that you form an alliance with some outstanding science teachers in your local district, take the time to become informed on this important issue, and work to become an effective advocate in your local area for major education reform.

To help you, Project RISE (Regional Initiatives in Science Education) stands ready with information and advice for scientists and engineers who want to get involved. Project RISE is a project of the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academics of Science and Engineering. For more information, you may ask for program information and to be placed on the mailing list by contacting:

Project RISE
Jan Tuomi, Director
National Research Council
2101 Constitution Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20418
rise@NAS.edu 202-334-2110

Recommended further reading:

On science education partnerships:
Sussman, Art, ed., Science Education Partnerships: A Manual for Scien- tists and K-12 Teachers, San Francisco: University of California, 1993. Available through Science Press, P.O. Box 31188, San Francisco, CA 94131 FAX 415-476-9926 ISBN 0-9635683-1-0
Beane, DeAnna Banks, Opening Up the Mathematics and Science Filter: Our Schools Did It, So Can Yours: A Nine Step Guide to Increasing Minority Student Participation in Mathematics and Science, Washington, DC, The Mid-Atlantic Equity Center, 1992. 5010 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, Suite 310, Washington, DC 20016 (202) 885-8517
On science, math and technology curriculum reform:
American Association for the Advancement of Science, Benchmarks for Science Literacy, New York, Oxford University Press, 1993. ISBN 0-19-508986-3
National Research Council, Fulfilling the Promise, Biology Education in the Nation's Schools, Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1990 ISBN 0-309-04243-7
On school reform:
Schlechty, Philip C., Schools for the 21st Century: Leadership Impera- tives for Educational Reform. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1990 ISBN 1-55542-366-3
On effective science teaching:
Harlen, Wynne, ed., Primary Science...Taking the Plunge, Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann Educational, 1985 ISBN 0-435-57350-0 Bruce Alberts, president of the National Academy Sciences, has identified elementary science education and the role of scientists in society as two major issues (see Science 264, 496 (April 22, 1994)). A highly-respected molecular biologist, he feels that if scientists can help to improve performance in the classroom, it will make it easier to garner public and political support for science.



Jan Tuomi

As a teacher who has been involved in partnerships with scientists and engineers for several years, the most unexpected thing I have learned is that you have much, much more to contribute to a partnership than just your content knowledge. I hope that the points below help motivate you to believe you have a lot to contribute and to get involved in a local science education initia- tive.

Your knowledge about science can be very helpful to educators. Child- ren's classroom experiences in science are largely determined by a specific curriculum (textbook or set of materials) adopted by their district or school. Through a variety of marketing techniques, textbook publishers exert great influence on committees charged with review of materials. You can also influence decisions concerning the kinds of science curricula begin used in your area by participating in the review of classroom materials and related activities. The draft National Science Education Standards will be released by the National Research Council late this year, launching a year of national dialogue. By participating in efforts to educate your community about them-- and the nature of good science education in general--you can have an impact on the success of current and future reforms.

Your experience doing science can also benefit classroom teachers. Many science teachers are expected to teach the "scientific method" to students without having had opportunities to "do" science in a hands-on manner them- selves. By working with both new and experienced teachers on professional development activities that involve them directly in scientific activities, you can have an impact on the way teachers design and implement science experiences and enrich the way they communicate the nature of the scientific process to their students.

You are familiar with the humbling experience of not knowing the answer to a problem and can solve complex problems through experimentation and persistence. You can contribute a great deal to current reform efforts by building partnerships with local science teachers in which you can apply these skills to collaborative explorations of current problems in science education. By working closely with teachers, you will find that you can contribute your professional strengths while also learning a great deal about the educational environment. Over time, your participation in partnership activities will help you become an informed advocate for continuous educational progress in science education.

The high level of professional status given to scientists by communities, in general, allows you to serve as an invaluable source of support to the outstanding teachers in your area--the very teachers who often have to struggle hard to be heard by school or district personnel. As we all know, it is the best teachers in our communities who have much of the wisdom and insight needed to improve our schools. You can encourage the community to listen to these teachers' voices by actively supporting them in the district headquarters, foundation boardrooms, and community meetings. Ongoing, equal partnerships with master teachers in your area will provide you with the opportunities you need to become an informed advocate for improved science instruction and systemic reform.

You have practical experience with grant-writing which many educators lack. When a major reform effort requires start-up capital, your experience can help with the preparation of a well-planned and substantive application. Your professional and business contacts can also provide introductions to private foundation boards.

You belong to an international professional community. Your professional affiliations offer countless opportunities for spreading the word about important issues in science education. Potentially, you can magnify the impact of current reforms by emphasizing the importance of sharing successes and coordinating efforts throughout the scientific community as a whole.

Note from the chair: Help us help you get involved, as outlined above, by filling in our member survey