Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Science Ed under the Microscope

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Science Ed under the Microscope

Article excerpt

When you're one of the last to cross the finish line in a key race, it's time to reassess. Was it just a bad day or should you look for a different sport?

But quitting isn't an option when the race is science education. Ever since the Soviet Union beat the United States into space in 1957, American students' science achievement has been under intense scrutiny.

Yet American students are still struggling behind their international counterparts -and it's prompting a major review of how kids are being taught and by whom. "It's no longer OK to depend on the 2 percent of students who are science whizzes," says Lee Herring of the National Science Foundation. "The accelerating pace of change is mandating that individual citizens be more flexible intellectually." And that means a populace with better science skills. By the middle grades, students are losing interest in science and by their senior year only about half have completed four years of science. Only one-quarter enroll in physics. These conclusions came out of last year's Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS). While US fourth-graders were near the top, 12th-graders dragged in at a dismal 19th out of 21 countries in the test (ahead only of Cyprus and South Africa). These results are particularly troubling given the breakneck clip of scientific and technological advancement, says Mr. Herring. As a result, science education has been tossed in the petri dish for closer examination. From the wide body of research being conducted by all manner of groups - national educational organizations, universities, independent research groups - a few messages are consistent: *To engage students, learning needs to be more hands-on. *Teachers need more support, training, and incentive. *The nation needs to adhere to a cohesive, consistent, and rigorous set of science-education standards. *US science curricula cover too many topics. But in the classroom where the reports, policies, and official recommendations are just so much background static, many teachers are simply trying to change student perceptions of science. "I try to teach the kids that they are scientists," says fourth- grade teacher Mary Lynn Wright from Bellows, Vt. "They think of it as having to be 55 and in a white coat." Ms. Wright and about 50 other teachers and counselors convened last summer for a workshop at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., on ways to support gender equality in the classroom. The gender gap in science is another issue facing educators - while women are making strides, they're still underrepresented in the sciences. "I'll hear the girls in the hall saying, 'I'm not good at it,' " Wright adds. There's widespread consensus that the most effective way to help all students is through more hands-on learning. …

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