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Sad About Science

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"My general impression is one of extreme disappointment," Gerald Wheeler of the National Science Teachers Association told Education Week after the release this month of a federal study showing that students in urban schools struggled with relatively basic tasks in a test of their science skills. "I can't imagine these kids surviving in a scientifically literate society."

Having grown up in a family of scientists (my father, now retired, was a chemistry professor and my older brother is a chemistry professor), I remember the many conversations my father and brother have had over the years about why so few U.S. kids pursue scientific interests. My father and brother bemoan the perceived unwillingness of teenagers to tackle difficult subjects such as chemistry, physics, and biology that take discipline, focus, and commitment to navigate and understand. They point out that schools relying on history or English teachers to teach science were simply wasting their time, because the sciences demanded a teacher with superb subject matter knowledge.

As a self-described science idiot in a science family, I tended to keep my mouth shut when these conversations took place. But not anymore, because I think science is potentially the most fascinating subject you can learn about in school. Most schools and communities simply are not tapping into the potential power of science.

To get kids motivated to learn science--and to hang with it even when the going gets tough--requires a bigger picture approach that involves the whole community, as suggested by Science After School, a blog about science education. The author of the blog argues that generating more motivation to learn science starts with accepting the scientific process as something that children can understand and use to understand the world around them. And those opportunities, he says, must be provided to students who may not get such experiences at home.

Then, as my father and brother argue, make it a priority and find the resources to hire teachers with superb subject matter knowledge. But those teachers also must possess the unique skills necessary to turn that knowledge into relevant lessons about science.

In other words, make science relevant and make it available. And then set teachers and students on a course to rescue us from graduating a generation of scientifically illiterate citizens.


4 Comments

Your ideas for generating more motivation to learn science (or to learn anything, for that matter) are excellent, and I would like to add that truly effective teaching requires that teachers communicate (transfer) their excitement about their subject. Our experience is that teachers who are able to do this AND make it relevant to their students often achieve the best success. Of course when this occurs, teachers and students will be the ones setting the course for us -- not the other way around.

I was going to say that your comments apply equally well to any subject. And Ms. Rossi's about the need for knowledge AND effective communication of both knowledge and enthusiasm. Some of the worst teachers I've had, in both high school and college, were extremely knowledgeable about their subjects...

Teaching science is not any more difficult than teaching any other subject for one who truly understands the scientific approach to phenomena (sometimes called "the scientific method"). Too often, though science is presented as a set of vocabulary words to be memorized or as a set of skills for solving certain kinds of chemistry or physics problems. Vocabulary and skills are useful, but without the motivation of the scientific approach, rarely interesting or useful for much beyond doing well on tests.

Thanks for your valuable column. I have just returned from a colloquium on the ongoing crisis in science education. Motivating students to care about science and math begins early and surely involves helping children to persist at tasks and explore possibilities. Our group witnessed the work of a great teacher this morning. He was one of our presenters and is known well for his work with students young and old. In ten minutes he had us learning...as well as smiling and intriqued. Yes, he knows his stuff, and he uses mystery and drama, guessing and interaction, facts and figures, touchable equipment. He (Mr. "Z") made us all feel special to be part of his group as we learned together. Magic? No. Just really good teaching that attended to elements of motivation and a genuine appreciation for his learners.

Great article! A questionnaire that high school and college science teachers use to find out which of their students' needs motivational support is on the Science Motivation Questionnaire Web site at http://www.coe.uga.edu/smq/

Michael William
Science Teacher

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  • Michael William: Great article! A questionnaire that high school and college science read more
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  • Mary Rossi: Your ideas for generating more motivation to learn science (or read more

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