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It’s Not Rocket Science: No Child Left Behind Will Force Schools to Put Science Ed on Front Burner

Many educators have apoplexy over the "No Child Left Behind" legislation, but the science community is grabbing onto it like a life preserver hoping that science will finally be placed back into elementary schools and high school teachers can once again teach biology, chemistry and physics with labs and equipment updated for the first time since Lassie ruled the airwaves.

President Bush's initiative requires, among other things, that by 2007 students be tested in science and schools held accountable for adequate yearly performance progress. Even those educators who are tired of testing agree that exams are the stick needed to bring science back into the curriculum. Ask an educator candidly and they will admit that science has been on the back burner for decades because most states now only require proficiency testing in reading and math.

It's about time we paid attention to science before the United States is outsourced, brain-drained, and left technoligically anemic by the rest of the world. If it takes No Child Left Behind to do it, so be it.

The last time the United States rallied to support science education was in 1957 when the Soviet Union embarrassed us with the launch of Sputnik.

Are American public schools really that bad at teaching science? Yes. A recent anecdote illustrates my point. A speaker at the American Chemistry Society meetings in Boston two years ago - a Russian immigrant chemist -- lectured to a room full of physical chemists and wrote on the board:

Force = Mass x Acceleration

"Does this look familiar?" he asked. Annoyed by the long silent pause, one of the attending chemists finally said, "Yes, that's high school physics." The Russian blurted back, "In Russia, this is elementary physics!" "He's right," I thought. The earliest I could remember seeing that equation was eleventh grade physics - and I was a science nerd in high school. But why? This equation requires only third-grade math to solve and every kid knows it hurts more when a heavier object falls on their head.

For those analytical types who are reading this with skepticism, saying "show me the numbers," I sadly refer you to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study which shows that the United States lags far behind the world. To quote a report by the National Commission on Education Excellence, we are a nation at risk.

Here are the reasons science so badly lags in American schools:

One: We teach science by asking students to read about it. You don't "read" science, you "do" science. You "conduct" science. Reading science is dry as dust, and confusing. Too bad, because "doing" science is easier, and fun.

Two: Most education departments and schools in colleges and universities are so fixated on the "three R's" that they fail to prepare elementary teachers for teaching science. Most colleges require undergraduates majoring in elementary education to take only one course in science. And for the current generation of classroom teachers, these teacher prep courses were frequently taught with a textbook and no lab activities - again, dry and boring and teacher reacted accordingly. So, the tendency is for the teacher to wait to begin science until he or she can safely give students a book to read about science.

Three: Science equipment and materials are more expensive than books, and that translates to...uh-oh, tax increases! Citizens have very little control over their federal income tax rates, so they micro-manage what they can - local school tax rates, and that means fewer expenditures on high-cost laboratories and materials.

Four: There is little funding interest by the states, or the federal government, on basic science education, even cost-effective science outreach programs that provide shared resources. Programs such as Juniata College's Science In Motion in Pennsylvania sprung up around the country during the 80's and 90's to enable students to learn science by doing science. Suddenly students in poor rural and city schools used "real" science equipment like gas chromatographs and electrophoresis chambers (used for DNA profiling). Statistics showed these programs worked; poorer schools began boasting of students entering medical schools and earning doctorates in chemistry. But even the initial strong support of these programs by the National Science Foundation has waned, a victim of budget cuts.

This is why the No Child Left Behind legislation is a last-ditch way to force more spending on education - by mandating that children who graduate from American schools have a modicum of science proficiency. The last time the United States rallied to support science education was in 1957 when the Soviet Union embarrassed us with the launch of Sputnik.

Two years ago, I took some basic science demonstrations to my daughter's school as a parent who was invited to share her profession with the students. The students wrote thank you letters. One student wrote, "But as soon as you handed out those test tubes, I knew it would be more fun than other science classes." That's right. Eighth graders were excited just to put their hands on a test tube.

The No Child Left Behind legislation can come none too fast for the future of American science. Even 2007 may be too far away.

Lorraine Mulfinger is director of science outreach and associate professor of chemistry at Juniata College.