Science Education Reform: How Can We Help?

By Bower, James M. | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Science Education Reform: How Can We Help?


Bower, James M., Issues in Science and Technology


During the past several years, the deplorable state of public science education and the perceived consequences for our nation's economic and intellectual vitality have attracted the attention not only of educators and politicians but also of an increasing number of professional scientists and engineers. As a consequence, a remarkable number of science professionals are becoming or are already involved in attempts to improve public science education. Although in principle this increased involvement of the scientific community is encouraging, it is also true that scientific training very often includes little or no focus on science education itself. Instead, it is simply assumed that Ph.D. training in experimental science is adequate preparation for one's eventual educational responsibilities. After a decade of experience in elementary school science education reform, I can assure you that this is not the case.

For the past 10 years, my Caltech colleague Jerry Pine and I have been involved in a close collaborative partnership with the Pasadena Unified School District in an attempt to introduce and support high-quality "hands-on" science teaching for all children. As of the fall of 1993, all 650 K-6 teachers in this large urban school district teach four 10- to 12-week science kits each year. These kits emphasize an open-ended, experiment-based approach to understanding science. We have also established a substantial professional development program in science for all teachers in the district, as well as an elaborate materials support system. Recently, the program has been extended into middle and high school classrooms and preservice teacher training. During the past five years, we have also transplanted this project into two additional school districts, one in California and one on Maui, Hawaii. As a result of these successes, in the fall of 1994 the National Science Foundation established a center at Caltech that is intended to transfer our model for systemic reform to 14 additional school districts in California. At present, we are working with nine school districts located in central and southern California.

Our efforts to change science teaching in public schools have met with some success, but this success compelled me, as a scientist, to reexamine many of the most basic assumptions I had developed as a result of my own science education. I started these projects with enthusiasm and a sense of great need, but I realize now that I was, in fact, poorly equipped for my role as a partner in change. I knew essentially nothing about education in general or science education in particular. Many of the assumptions I had made about the process of change and what good science education looked like were flat wrong. I also had little or no real understanding of the structure of school districts, teacher capabilities, or the effort required to produce lasting change in public science education. Ten years later, I continue to learn important lessons, guided by our school district collaborators.

Because of the initial success of the Pasadena projects, I am increasingly asked to evaluate other science reform efforts involving scientists. From this exposure, it has become clear that many of the incorrect assumptions that I initially made are often evident in the plans of other science education reform efforts involving scientists and scientific organizations. In fact, these assumptions appear to be strong enough that scientists often invent nearly identical reform programs - and achieve the same limited success. The purpose of this article is to identify some of these common myths of science education reform. Although several of my points will probably be regarded as controversial, at a minimum this listing will expose potential reform advocates to some important program design issues. After all, whatever its final structure, no program, just as no research project, should be created or run in a vacuum.

Myths of science education reform

Myth 1: The problem with public science education is that a large percentage of teachers are incompetent and should be fired. …

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Science Education Reform: How Can We Help?
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