THE TROUBLED STATE OF U.S. SCIENCE EDUCATION:
PROBLEMS AND POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS
How is it that the United States is considered to be the world’s leader
in technological innovation including science research and development;
yet in terms of science and mathematics testing, our 12th grade
students scored near the bottom compared with students from other countries.1
According to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS),
U.S. 12th grade students not only scored near the bottom on
recent tests, but specifically scored behind every other nation, except
Cyprus and South Africa.2
Furthermore, in physics, the United States scored at the very bottom
On December 2001, during a House Floor discussion on funding for science
education in the FY 2002 budget, Representative Vernon Ehlers (R-MI)
acknowledged that the United States is indeed “dead last among those
nations in high school physics.” Interestingly enough, Representative
Ehlers is one of only two physicists serving in Congress since 1996. He
further went on to refer to the 2000 NAEP (National Assessment of Education
Progress) results which found no improvement in science literacy in the
4th and 8th grades, and a decline in science performance
in science performance in grade 12 since 1996.
Yet conferees on the FY2002 Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill
(H.F. 3061) provided substantially less targeted funding than in 2001
for improving science and math education. In the resulting conference
report, however, states were encouraged to continue their current level
of effort to improve science and math instruction by making use of funds
available for improving overall teacher quality.
Is simply improving overall teacher quality the answer to the continuing
troubled state of U.S. science education – or, are there and should there
be other methods in addition?
On January 15, 2001, a study by Professor J. Hubisz, President of the
American Association of Physics Teachers, published by the Associated
Press, showed 85% of middle school students are using science textbooks
so full of errors and inaccuracies as to make them unacceptable. These
books have been called “terrible”3 from a science standpoint,
and it has been stated that many science teachers have little science
According to a recent Bayer survey, ‘The Bayer Facts of Science Education
VI: Americans’ Views on Science, Technology, Education and the Future’,
93% of respondents said students in their state need a stronger education
in science to be prepared for the new inventions, discoveries and technologies
that increased investment will likely bring. They also stated a belief
that the way to strengthen science education is for their state and governor
to support pre-college science education reforms that emphasize inquiry-based,
hands-on learning over traditional textbook and rote memorization.4
I believe strongly that hands-on learning is the best, most practical
way of learning in science education; when you consider the high school
requirements of 3 years of science and math, the importance of truly
immersing students in these subjects comes to the fold. A critical step
in achieving strong, positive results, is to expose students to the hands-on
Nobel Laureate in Physics, Leon Lederman, has stated that “Science works
in a hierarchy. It’s a pyramid with mathematics at the base. Physics
requires mathematics and is second.” So in a sense, the two go hand
and hand and should be considered critical in learning.
In his paper, “Scientists and Science Education Reform: Myths, Methods,
and Madness,” James Bower, Associate Professor of Biology at California
Institute of Technology, states his own findings from studies of California
schools. He theorizes that “attempts to transfer the excitement of science
through lectures never gives teachers the opportunity to experience the
thrill of doing science themselves.” He sites that in most cases, “the
‘hands-on’ activities are do-it-yourself ‘cookbook’ demonstrations of
the sort professors design for their own undergraduates.”
Having taken more than a science course or two, particularly physics,
in my lifetime, I have seen this in practice. Even in high school, the
teacher would perform the experiment in lecture to ensure the same outcome
each and every time. Often student reaction would flicker from slight
interest into complete boredom in watching the teacher demonstrations. Although
I do remember once, my biology teacher elicited quite a “shock-jock”
response when he one day produced a fetus-in-a-bottle from a pocket in
his lab coat merely for the “fun” of it.
My question is: Why should science experiments solely be performed
by teachers in lectures? Why can’t time be specifically allotted for
students to participate in science activities and experiments themselves
in addition to being introduced to the subject at hand by their teachers?
And what of the claim that science teachers are inadequately prepared
to teach science?
In his report on science education, Bower states his finding that “the
more college science courses a teacher has taken, the more likely they
are to model their teaching on the lecture-based approach of most university
science professors.” He also states a finding that “teachers with fewer
college lecture-based science courses are often more amenable to fundamental
change to inquiry teaching methods than are those whose examples for
science teaching come from college and university professors”, and “as
these teachers become involved in real science experiments in their classrooms,
they inevitably seek additional science content knowledge.5 This
would seem to strongly sell the argument that teachers with fewer lecture-based
science courses are more open and willing to use hands-on teaching methods
in their courses. With this in mind, it is important to continue to
establish the importance of having real experimental science and inquiry-based
learning in our schools.
Science involves inquiry and exploration. Its teaching should allow
opportunities for real open-ended scientific discovery. I believe that
splitting lecture time into in-class hands-on lab time in pre-college
education courses is the best way. Another key is in relating the teaching
of scientific principles to what’s going on in the real world.
Students can be encouraged to read the newspaper on a regular basis,
specifically looking for science articles discussing what’s happening
around them. These articles can be brought into class and shared with
fellow students in discussions lead by teachers, further supporting the
inquiry-based learning process.
Sooner or later, the deficiencies in U.S. science
education will catch up with our advances in scientific and technological
development. A new philosophy of true hands-on learning on the part
of students in cooperation with their teachers seems the most practical
1. IEEE*USA/Bayer, July 2000
2. Grandfather Education Report, February 2002
3. Grandfather Education Report, February 2002.
Bayer Corporation, July 2002.
Scientists and Science Education Reform, Bower.
Bower, James. M. Scientists and Science Education Reform: Myths, Methods,
and Madness. The National Academies. December 2002.
Hodges, M. and Mechlenburg, B. Grandfather Education Report: Dangerous
Erosion of Education Quality and Productivity. February 2002.
House Floor Discussion on Funding for Science Education. FYI: The
AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News. FYI Number 2: January 4, 2002.
In Science, Americans Like Being Number One, According to New Gallup
Survey. IEEE*USA. July 11, 2000.
Lederman, Leon. The Ever More Pressing Problem of Science Literacy: “We
will fight on the beaches…” Adapted from a 1997 presentation.
Science Committee Begins Education Study. Science and Technology in
Progress. April 1999.
Shocking State of Math and Science Education in SA schools Unveiled. Media
Releases 1996. Human Sciences Research Council. November 24, 1996.
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