Concerned about the gap in science interest and achievement among kids nationwide, the National Science Teachers Association this year launched a $43 million, five-year effort to create a Center for Science Education.
The center’s goals are to:
• promote science literacy,
• produce new science education standards, and
• create a state-of-the-art facility where science teachers nationwide can engage in leadership and content-based learning opportunities.
At the secondary school level, science teachers have been working on piquing students’ interest in science for several years now. Teachers are seeing an upswing in the number of students taking advanced science courses in high school and college.
“Twice as many high school students are taking AP biology and chemistry courses today compared to 10 years ago,” says Kenneth Wong, Ph.D., who chairs the Education Department at Brown University.
Meanwhile, a group of colleges and universities in Houston recently doubled the number of underrepresented minority students earning a bachelor’s degree in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. The group has seen the number of minority students earning this degree increase from a baseline of 458 in 1999 to more than 800 in 2005.
An Earlier Start
Still, if science isn’t adequately taught in the earlier grades, students won’t be prepared for or enthusiastic about higher-level courses later on.
“The lack of engaging and high-quality science at the elementary level impoverishes all students, and makes it difficult or impossible for them to catch up later,” says Pratt, adding that, for him, science skills are as essential as being able to read, or add and subtract.
Change, however, is definitely afoot. Public calls for earlier science instruction have resulted in some inventive programs and approaches. Among them:
• The Zula Patrol – Aimed at kids ages 4 to 8, this animated educational television series uses science to teach young children critical thinking skills. The programs are already used extensively in school classrooms and related offerings include Zula Patrol DVDs, museum exhibits, science kits and more.
“Science education starts too late and does not present science in an interesting way,” says series creator Deb Manchester. The Zula Patrol is designed to fix that, with Captain Bula, Professor Multo, pilot Zeeter, pet Gorga, and companions Wizzy and Wigg teaching children about science and astronomy.
• Seed (Science for Early Educational Development) – This hands-on science learning and experimentation curriculum is a joint venture of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, and the Pasadena Unified School District.
“This is an attempt to introduce and support high-quality, inquiry-based, hands-on science teaching for all children,” says James M. Bower, Ph.D., one of the program’s co-founders.
Currently, all 800 K-6 teachers in this large school district teach four 10- to 12-week science units each year. “We start out with an emphasis on the needs of the youngest children, in grades K-6, because they begin school as natural scientists,” Bower says.
• The Toyota Tapestry Program – This program donated $550,000 in grant money to 82 science teachers in 2007. One of the gifted winners was Angie Meadows, a kindergarten teacher in Wilmington, Del. Thanks to her “Green Eggs and Sand” program, Meadows’ students have been learning about local ecosystems and horseshoe crabs, an endangered species that has lived in the Delaware Bay for the past 300 million years.
“That means they predate dinosaurs, something the kids find fascinating!” says Meadows. The kindergartners have made several trips to the Bay, bringing back eggs that they will return to the water at the end of the year. “I love it that we come back from our trips all sandy and gritty and with big smiles on our faces!” Meadows says.
• Science Education Fellowships – Elementary school teachers in Houston are getting a taste of what it’s like to be a scientist. The Baylor College of Medicine’s SELF (Science Education Leadership Fellows) program pairs teachers with Baylor postdoctoral researchers and graduate students to form science education improvement teams.
In June 2007, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), based in Chevy Chase, Md., announced a $22.5 million initiative to enhance science education from pre-K to 12th grade. Help yourSELF is just one of their projects. “Teachers learn laboratory methods through hands-on experience and conduct a three-week summer research project,” says Debra Felix, senior program officer for HHMI. “Scientists have opportunities to work directly with students, observing and teaching in classrooms.”
• Project Lead the Way – Now offered in more than 1,300 schools in 45 states and the District of Columbia, this cutting-edge program uses a hands-on approach to excite the full-range of students in middle school.
“A skilled teacher equipped with cheap, hands-on tools like LEGOs, ping-pong balls and hair-dryer-powered hot-air balloons can work magic in inspiring future scientists,” explains Anne Spence, assistant professor of mechanical engineering and director of Project Lead the Way at the University of Maryland.
• Exploratorium – www.exploratorium.edu – The Web site of the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco provides a wealth of online activities and online exhibits related to
science. If you can’t get there in person, the Web site is an excellent alternative.
• New York Hall of Science – www.nyscience.org – The Web site for this wonderful museumallows you to investigate current exhibits online.
• Science Adventures – www.scienceadventures.com – Provides a full listing of science
camps and after-school activities nationwide for children in grades 1-6.
• The Zula Patrol – www.zula.com – The Web site for this animated TV series on science and astronomy offers plenty of activities for parents and kids to have fun learning science together. It’s geared toward kids ages 4 to 8.
The Crisis in Science Education is a 4-part feature:
• Confronting the Crisis
Judy Molland is a teacher, freelance writer and author, who frequently writes on education issues for Dominion Parenting Media and Parenthood.com.