Science educators urge new focus

Science teachers in the field, such as Janis Elliott, left, and Carol Bauer, right, say they need help, mainly in professional training and enough class time to be creative.Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Many educators and employers liken the state of science education to a chemistry project gone awry: A bad mix of factors has come together and it spells trouble.

By law, making students better at reading and math is the nation’s priority. When it comes to science, however, a quiet crisis is engulfing schools, say scientists, educators, business leaders and entrepreneurs.

It begins when young students skip challenging science courses and later produces an understaffed or ill-trained corps of science instructors. The result is lagging U.S. performance in jobs, research and innovation.

“The public is not hearing this,” said Gerald Wheeler, a nuclear physicist and executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. “It’s troubling that at one level, we understand that we live in a technological society, but it’s not playing out that way. Science is on the back burner.”

Not everyone is pessimistic.

The country remains a dominant force in the advancement of science. Also, some observers say the picture of an “emerging and critical” problem in the labor force, as it was put by the government advisory National Science Board, is overblown.

But teachers in the field say they need help, mainly in professional training and enough class time to be creative.

“Is the goal now a set of scores or is the goal a set of scientists?” said Janis Elliott, who teaches physics at a high school in Bellevue, Neb. “That’s the difference and you don’t achieve those goals in the same way.”

Teachers attending the National Education Association’s annual meeting spoke about the state of science education in a group interview Saturday with The Associated Press.

Elliott, who trains other teachers in science trends, says she often must seek her own training from outside sources. They include military weapons experts, a private engineering company and a cancer research institute.

“In physics, with infrared imagery, I have to tell kids how to use it, how they’re going to need to know it, what computer applications come with it, how they’re going to use it in medicine and in looking for bomb shelter in war ... We don’t get that training in college,” Elliott said.

Carol Bauer, an elementary school teacher in Yorktown, Va., says she sees inquisitive students who do not know what they are missing, either in school or in their own free time.

“The kids today don’t have a chance to discover,” she said. “They don’t even get to go check out their own neighborhood. We have to know what they’re doing all the time. They just don’t know what exploration is.”

Education Department leaders say science is not a second-class subject. They have led efforts aimed at improving teachers’ skills and they are watching for results. By 2007, under the No Child Left Behind law, all schools must test students in science at least once in elementary, middle and high school.

The science news of late has not been uplifting, from national test scores to teachers’ confidence in their science skills and parents’ satisfaction in course offerings. Business leaders say they have seen declining interest in science among students.

“It’s going to cause a steady weakening of U.S. leadership in technology and related fields,” said Gary Bloom, chief executive of the Veritas software company and one of several technology executives to ask Congress to put greater focus on science in schools. “More and more creativity, new ideas, patents, engineering and businesses will begin to creep overseas.”

Daniel Greenberg, a guest scholar at The Brookings Institution who specializes in the politics of science, disputes any notion of an impending crisis. American scientific exploration will thrive “regardless of the worry-mongers who periodically sound false alarms,” he wrote recently.

But in today’s schools, teachers see problems even in finding time to plan and set up a science lesson in class.

Improving training is essential if those with science backgrounds are to stick with teaching over more lucrative jobs, said Sandy Sullivan, an elementary school teacher from Ashburn, Va.

“That’s important in any subject, but especially science,” she said, “because it can be left behind.”