Confronting a Third Crisis in U.S. Science Education

Article excerpt

Is science education broken in the United States? And if so, how should the country fix it? A working group of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) has been investigating these long-standing questions and is expected to issue a report on its policy recommendations this month. Science News Contributing Editor Alexandra Witze spoke with the working group's cochair, physicists. James Gates Jr. of the University of Maryland in College Park. Gates also serves on the Board of Trustees of Society for Science & the Public, the parent organization of Science News.

What is the outlook for U.S. science education?

If you look at U.S. performance on various international metrics, depending on which one you use, we come out something like 24th or 25th in the world. A lot of people might argue: "Well, who cares? It's just science." The only problem with that theory is we're moving into a time in the development of the world economy when innovation and the formation of novel approaches will clearly come from countries best situated to create a population that can innovate in science and technology.

We're not doing this because we want to make more scientists. The reason we are doing this with urgency is because it's connected to our country's future economy.

The Obama administration has announced a number of science education initiatives. Will they do enough?

I think the true test is yet to come. Does one put one's money where one's mouth is? To some substantial degree, this administration has stepped up to the plate with its increased support of science. On the other hand, we have heard concerns about sustainability of this commitment in light of current economic constraints.

How is PCAST approaching its deliberations about science education?

We're trying to be mindful of the tremendous number of efforts that have gone before; there are at least 40 to 50 such reports that one could list. We have found discussions in the literature all the way back to the '60s where people were raising issues of science and technology education.

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When I look at the country's current crisis with regard to STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education, this is in fact the third such crisis.

The first one was World War II in my opinion. If you look at the way this nation prosecuted the war successfully, it was because the United States innovated at a level far beyond its competition. …