Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology

Precollege Science Teachers Need Better Training: U.S. Science Education Is Improving, but a Few Local Programs Are Demonstrating How It Can Become Even Better

Magazine article Issues in Science and Technology

Precollege Science Teachers Need Better Training: U.S. Science Education Is Improving, but a Few Local Programs Are Demonstrating How It Can Become Even Better

Article excerpt

Now and in the decades to come, science literacy may well be the defining factor for our success as individuals and as a nation. Indeed, U.S. global competitiveness and its national security rest firmly on our ability to educate a workforce capable of generating, coping with, and mastering myriad technological changes. In the summer of 2000 and again this past spring, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan broke with tradition and testified before Congress not about interest rates or inflation but about the importance of strengthening U.S. science and math education as the foundation to continued economic growth and national security.

Those planning to pursue science and engineering careers will need higher levels of science literacy than most, but perhaps not so obvious is the fact that even nonscientists will need a baseline level of science understanding if they are to become responsible citizens, capable of functioning fully in a technology-driven age. Yet, many of us who work in science and technology (S & T) fields do not believe that the country has made the full commitment to improving science education. We are routinely barraged by reports telling us that our students are simply not making the grade when it comes to science. From the National Assessment of Education Progress to the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), which periodically compares U.S. student performance in math and science to that of students from other countries, the news has not been favorable.

Recently, a spate of new reports has returned the issue of U.S. science education to center stage. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Science Board issued companion reports in the spring of 2004 that show that the United States is not producing the number of scientists and engineers it needs to fill a job sector that is growing far faster than any other. Nor can the United States continue to depend on the talents and contributions of foreign-born scientists who have filled these jobs for the past decade, the reports say, because these scientists are now presented with expanding opportunities elsewhere. Thus, the United States faces a major shortage of science and engineering talent at the same time that many other countries are closing the gap with U.S. research leadership.

This country has a science pipeline problem, a problem that doesn't begin in college or high school. It begins in elementary school, as early as kindergarten. That is when we get the best first chance to grab students' attention and keep them engaged and interested in science for a lifetime. That is also the time when students, if taught science in a hands-on, inquiry-based manner, begin to develop important lifelong science literacy skills, such as problem solving, critical thinking, and working in teams.

This is not necessarily news to science educators who have been involved in efforts to strengthen science teaching for the past decade or so. Scientists, business leaders, and educators now agree that more effort should be placed on K-12 science education, with increased emphasis at the elementary school level. They concur that the skills and techniques of precollege science teachers should be strengthened and expanded, and that science teaching resources, including curriculum, laboratory equipment, and information technologies, should be renewed and improved. Most important, they want science to be taught in a hands-on, inquiry-based way.

This kind of inquiry or experiential learning involves a shift from fact-intensive, textbook-based, lecture-driven science to idea-intensive, experiment-based science learning through project teamwork that is overseen and orchestrated by a skilled professional science teacher well schooled in and comfortable with science. It is a methodology that aligns with the National Science Education Standards and that has been promoted for the past decade or so by the National Science Foundation, National Science Teachers Association, and the National Science Resources Center (NSRC), among others. …

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