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Science: A World of Possibilities

The President hosted a White House science fair this week where young inventors showcased clever gadgets and their ability to think and innovate. In was in this context that the President made an exciting announcement about potentially millions of dollars to improve math and science education.

As much as I envy the young mind that created the marshmallow shooter (and the President for having the opportunity to play with it), I do wonder what could be possible if our nation's agile, creative minds applied scientific thinking to real-world global and local issues.

Climate change, population growth, pandemic diseases, and pollution. Green technologies, new mobility systems, and advances in biotechnology. The science classroom is a powerful place for students to explore local implications of global problems and opportunities.

A science curriculum with a global focus gets students engaged in project-based learning, real world scientific investigations, and gives them a solid foundation in scientific thinking and practices.

Here are some ideas for using science to promote students' global competence:

Teach inquiry through the global history of science

From China, where the solar year was calculated in 444 BCE, to ancient Greece, scientific knowledge and skills traveled first by land then by sea and spread throughout Eurasia. Indian mathematicians invented the numerals we use today, but Arabs applied and spread the concept widely. Many scientific instruments were first developed in Asia. Western science has drawn on this heritage of ideas and discoveries and science has developed universal methods of scientific inquiry and standards of evidence. Today, important scientific institutions can be found on every continent, science is increasingly conducted in global teams, and the top scientific publications publish contributions from scientists around the world.

Engage students by addressing global challenges

While some students are interested in science for its own sake, many more students become engaged when they see it as a tool for solving major problems in the world. By presenting global issues with scientific implications, teachers can help students see how the world is interconnected and help them learn how to use the tools of science to identify and solve problems.

Students can become scientists at a young age. This is when they ask: What do I need to know to answer this question? Their teachers in turn provide the tools to make meaningful inquiry and solutions feasible. Rather than memorizing concepts from textbooks, students become active learners capable of extrapolating newfound knowledge to other problems. There are global challenges to engage students within every field of science as well as issues that require interdisciplinary approaches. For example:

  • Earth Science. Analyze the causes and consequences of earthquake activity worldwide and propose solutions to minimize damage and loss of life.

  • Chemistry. Compare fuel use around the world and analyze the strengths and weakness of various alternative fuels.

  • Biology. Examine global nutrition issues by analyzing new means of farming or consider the worldwide impact of growing particular crops. Study global infectious diseases and the impact of vaccines and antibiotics on virus mutation.

  • Physics. Examine the workings of hybrid and electrical cars and their scalability to world transport needs.

  • Interdisciplinary projects. Analyze the worldwide problem of limited supplies of clean water through chemistry (molecular makeup), geography (river patterns), and water use and conservation (social studies and math).

Learn through international collaboration

Scientists often work in global teams. Schools around the United States are similarly connecting with others around the globe to discuss and solve scientific problems.

Schools can make international collaboration a core part of a science program by joining existing international science projects. For instance, the GLOBE project from NASA is a worldwide hands-on science and education program that allows students to work with scientists and other students around the world. Another program, One World Youth, involves students in collecting data on bird and butterfly migration across countries. Libraries, area scientists, universities, and research divisions of local companies all can provide ideas for projects as well as offer expertise in solving science problems.

Examples of activities to share with a global partner:

  • Experiments to compare water or air quality in different locations using locally collected data as well as secondary sources such as statistics available on the Internet. Comparison of renewable and non-renewable energy resources to power production in each country.
  • Exchange of information about the contrasting geology and rock types of local regions, including how the geology influences the landscape.
  • The design and creation of gardens, exploring with a partner school the effects of different climates on management, choice of plants, and use of herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides.

There is of course a world of possibilities. As schools of education and districts rise to the promise of STEM education, I do hope to see many more real-world solutions come from our students.

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