When researchers ask elementary students what is their most favorite time in school, the answer is clear. “Science!” they exclaim.
When researchers ask American elementary teachers which class they feel least prepared to teach, the answer is just as unanimous. Science!
Our elementary teachers receive a pitiful amount of science training. But not other countries. China has difficulty recruiting teachers for schools in their poor countryside. As a result, some schools have teachers with only a high school education. But China, similar to other Asian and European countries teaches three times more science in K-12. So these Chinese emergency teachers with a high school education know more science than American elementary teachers who graduated from college!
The American situation has become worse during the No Child Left Behind emphasis on math and reading tests. George Griffith recently presented research to the Kansas State Board of Education showing that many elementary teachers have decreased or eliminated science under the pressure to raise reading and math test scores.
Don’t blame these teachers. I work with them in workshops and many tell me they want to teach science but have been limited to 20 minutes a week. One had 20 minutes once-a-month.
Don’t expect this situation to improve. Our Kansas waiver from NCLB still requires increasing math and reading test scores and closing the gap between high and low performing students. Kansas legislators may even make teachers’ evaluations mostly dependent on raising these narrow test scores.
But American kids are starving to learning more science. And we desperately need more American kids graduating in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.
Our science “pipeline” is running dry. Nationwide, a total of approximately 4 million students in 2005 were in each elementary grade. And we know that a large proportion love science. We produced 2,799,250 high school graduates that spring, reflecting about a 30 percent dropout rate. 1,861,501 entered college that fall although only 1,303,050 were “college-ready.” 277,550 majored in STEM areas in 2005. But only 166,530 graduated with a STEM bachelors degree by 2011. Some transferred in. Many transferred out.
About 60 percent of U.S. students who enter college intending to major in STEM end up graduating in a non-STEM field. Overall, the percent of college graduates in science and engineering in Singapore is 55 percent, China produces 49 percent, South Korea has 39 percent, and only 16 percent of U.S. college graduates are in STEM. This U.S. production is one-third of the scientists America needs.
We cannot make up this shortfall by producing a surge of inspiring high school science teachers. Few students “turn on” to science in high school. Students’ interest in science begins much earlier.
The study “Eyeballs in the Fridge: Sources of Early Interest in Science” appeared in the March 2010 issue of International Journal of Science Education. Researchers Robert H. Tai and Adam V. Maltese analyzed interviews of scientists and science graduate students asking what first attracted them to science? When did it happened? What was the experience like? Their journal article’s title comes from one participant who, as a child, brought home extra cow eyes after her third-grade science teacher helped students dissect them. She placed the leftovers in a paper bag into their home refrigerator. Her mother, unaware of her daughter’s project, screamed when she opened the bag. Many years later, this woman scientist identified that moment as a youngster when she made her commitment to science.
So did nearly all of the scientists—their science interests began when they were very young.
We must dramatically increase the science in our K-12 curriculum. That requires far better educated science teachers at all levels.
—And more science teachers.
—And more class time on science.
The “Less Science, Not More” movement by educationists has led this country into science illiteracy.
Read-about-science does nothing to keep the science fires burning in our youngsters hearts. Toys, television and videogames isolate them further from real experiences.
It is the very labs and field trips that we have canceled that must re-enter the school curriculum.
Bring nature into the classroom and each child pleads: “Let me see!” They have outstretched hands. They want to feel, manipulate, experiment.
Science is not about answers. Science is about asking questions.
We must stop neglecting science. We can fill the science pipeline.