Citizens and policymakers could all benefit from a methodical, evidence-based approach to making the choices they face. Should I immunize my preteen against HPV? Will fracking be good for my community? Unfortunately, science is often viewed as an amalgamation of esoteric facts rather than a process that can be used to inform those critical decisions.
For many Americans, science is simply a prerequisite on the path to careers in far-removed disciplines like business, politics, or the arts. Even though it might make sense to leave the science to the scientists, doing so can lead to a culture where even well-meaning individuals find themselves picking and choosing their facts or ignoring the scientific consensus.
For that reason, many scientists are reaching out to their local schools and municipalities in order to shape a better informed, more scientifically savvy public. Among those leading the charge are acclaimed theoretical physicist Helen Quinn, who began working with elementary and high school teachers to make physics instruction more fun when she was still an active researcher. Over thirty years later, she views science education as her retirement, and a good place to start for other researchers looking to make a difference.
Time to raise the bar
“Educating the children is educating the future policy makers,” said Quinn. “My theory is once you are dealing with adults it is really an uphill battle to change perspectives that have been built over 20 years of schooling about whether science is interesting or relevant to their lives. That is why I think science education is critical because if we convince students that science is a bunch of disconnected facts that don’t really hang together -- and that is the outcome of education for most students -- then why should they ever pay attention to science when they are thinking about the world?”
Quinn chaired the National Research Council study committee that developed the Next Generation Science Standards, a comprehensive guideline for science education published in April 2013. The purposes of the standards are to combat ignorance in science, create common standards for teaching in the United States, and encourage more students to go into careers in science and engineering. They were drafted along the same lines as the Common Core for English and mathematics, which are supposed to impose and raise standards while focusing on critical thinking and primary investigation.
The Next Generation Science Standards are based largely on research on learning, which show that students retain concepts much better when they practice them through hands-on activities than when they simply read about them in a book. They recommend a change in course from a “mile wide inch deep” approach to an “inch wide mile deep” curriculum that covers fewer topics, but in more depth. This educational tactic is already being employed by countries that score consistently higher than the United States on international tests assessing science, mathematics, and reading.
Many states are in the process of adopting these new standards, which involves review by the State Board of Education and, in states like Kentucky, final approval by the legislature. Quinn worries that the science standards will experience the same resistance that emerged with the common core standards and has already heard of complaints from parents that their kids are learning too much about processes and not enough “real science”. Therefore, she encourages scientists who believe in this new approach to go before their local boards of education and take their allotted three minutes to advocate for these changes.
“Content is still important, because there are some things that we all need to know. But at the same time, I don’t know how we can possibly learn all the new content that is created every moment of every day,” says Sam Houston, President and CEO of the NC Science, Mathematics and Technology Education Center and a supporter of the new standards. “By creating engaging environments that require young people to come in confrontation with the unknown and uncomfortable, we can encourage our youth to be creative, learn how to use information, be thoughtful about that information, and then solve problems.”
Changing the science curricula in order to meet these new standards is going to be a tall order, especially in regions where there is little investment in teacher training or funding for specialized school programs. According to the North Carolina STEM Scorecard developed by Houston and his colleague Charles Coble, co-director of Science and Mathematics Teacher Imperative, less than half of North Carolina’s high school science teachers are licensed to teach the subject. The situation in many other states is just as dire.
Though scientists can never replace licensed science teachers, they can make an impact by encouraging their universities and institutions to offer training programs to teachers, volunteering themselves in the schools, and advocating for increases in teacher pay.
One such advocate is Carmel McNicholas-Bevensee, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama. When she moved from her native England to the United States two decades ago, she was shocked to see such a great difference in the quality of STEM education. She began volunteering and today leads UAB’s Physiology Understanding (PhUn) Week, which brings scientists into local Birmingham schools to teach about how the body works and how to keep it working properly.
“This is a small way I feel I can give back,” she says. “I try to show that science is something that can be fun -- obviously it is hard work, but it can be fun. One little girl who was in kindergarten last year came up to me this year and said she wanted to be a scientist one day. I feel like I am having a big impact, and that is very rewarding.”
During PhUn week, elementary school students don lab gloves and touch real organs and tissues to learn about health issues like the effects of smoking and basic scientific concepts like diffusion. Over the years the program has expanded to serve more than 1600 students at schools in and around Birmingham, including Deer Valley Elementary. Deer Valley principal Wayne Richardson says he sees no downside to programs like PhUn Week, because they make science more tangible to both his teachers and students.
“It lights a fire under our teachers, because they see the kids and how they take to it so well,” says Richardson. “And it gives our students the opportunity to experience what a scientist experiences rather than just learning the information and the content.”
PhUn Week is part of a national program sponsored by the American Physiological Society and one of many outreach efforts cropping up across the country to bring more science – and scientists – into the classroom. Though quantitative data is lacking, there is qualitative evidence suggesting that such outreach programs and other hands-on activities are working. For example, a 2007 study by Sandra Laursen, a physical chemist and education advocate at the University of Colorado at Bolder, found that even small-scale efforts can generate a positive impact on students’ interest in science and thus their eagerness to learn the subject. What’s more, the research showed that scientists participating in outreach also gained benefits, such as acquiring teaching and communication skills, experiencing personal gratification and developing an appreciation for issues surrounding education and diversity.
UAB’s McNicholas-Bevensee has had such a good experience that she has chosen to dedicate more and more of her time to educational programs. Still, she understands that without such activities being recognized as important for promotion and tenure, most scientists will be hesitant to leave the lab.
“One of the biggest problems I have is getting people to volunteer,” she says. “Having worked in this area for many years, I can say that most people don’t feel much of a responsibility to do anything. Because taxpayer dollars are being used to fund their research, they should feel some responsibility to give back to the community. But unfortunately I don’t think most scientists see it that way.”
The classroom as a laboratory
A number of academic institutions, including Vanderbilt, Indiana University, and Stanford, are raising the visibility of community involvement efforts by creating new centers and offices devoted to science outreach. Stanford’s Office of Science Outreach, for example, provides resources for teachers looking for innovative ways to convey complex topics to their students, such as a series of microdocs or “short attention span science videos” on the sustainability of coral reefs. It also provides information for faculty and students interested in becoming involved, offering a menu of outreach options that range from hosting a science teacher in a summer research fellowship to organizing a career day for girls or students underrepresented in STEM fields.
Judging science projects is another way that scientists can volunteer at their local schools. But even though science fairs might seem like the poster child for the hands-on, active learning touted in the Next Generation Science standards, many scientists and educators feel that they have become a cookbook exercise that no longer accurately conveys what science is all about.
“Science fairs are certainly well-intended, but the way they play out is not very constructive for most kids,” says former physicist Quinn, who has served as a judge many times. “You can get a kid to go out and ask a real question and do a real experiment to test it, but in reality most of them go to the library to look for what is a good science fair project for third grade, find a book of such projects and then reproduce one.”
In small pockets around the country, a movement is underway to make science fairs less formulaic and more innovative by encouraging students to step away from the baking soda volcano. At NC State University, biologists Holly Menninger and Rob Dunn brought together a room full of scientists to brainstorm over a hundred questions that kids could answer, such as whether playing the Wii or playing outside is better exercise, or what ants do when it rains.
“We want to empower teachers, students, and parents to think about asking real questions rather than taking the easy route,” says Menninger, who directs public science for NC State’s Your Wild Life program. “That is one of the themes of our program -- there are so many things under our noses that nobody knows anything about, we don’t have to go to these far-off places to make important discoveries about science, we can do it looking down at the sidewalk or going out in our backyard.”
Menninger and Dunn are now using a five-year, $7.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to develop hands-on science that students can engage in year-round. They are partnering with the Nature Research Center at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences to bring middle school teachers into the lab, where they will work directly with scientists to develop projects and modules that fit their science curriculum. The projects and modules will then be tested and evaluated in several NC school districts with the eventual goal of being brought into classrooms across the state and nationwide.
“Think about what you want students to take away from their education,” says Quinn. “You know they won’t remember every detail that they learned in every course, but they should be able to understand how science goes about finding out what it is finding out. You want them to have at their disposal the ability to argue for evidence and to interpret data, so those processes are not just things to learn about but things they are be able to do themselves. Education should affect the way they think, so that they can incorporate new scientific knowledge into their worldview later in life, not just when they are in school.”