Science education standards: A broken system?

Science education standards aren't supposed to be funny, but when Melanie Cooper showed the South Carolina chemistry standards to an audience of scientists and educators at the 2010 AAAS Conference in San Diego, she got a laugh that would be the envy of any stand-up comic.

How could learning "established rules for significant digits" give anyone an "understanding of scientific inquiry?" Our system for teaching science is broken, Cooper argued, and now, with more money than ever going into science education, is the time to fix it.

"Introductory courses are the root of all evil," said Cooper, a chemistry professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. She has found that college students, even those who do well on standardized assessment tests, have gross misconceptions about basic scientific concepts. Even post docs and graduate students, she said, have "bizarro ideas about what a bond is."

But what horrifies Cooper most is that aspiring teachers go almost directly from learning science in dysfunctional courses to teaching it in grade school classrooms, creating a cycle of poor teaching and learning. To break this cycle, she said, we need to scrap trivial, information-based assessments and find ways to judge deep conceptual understanding and scientific thinking.

Martin Storkdieck, who directs the Board of Science Education at the National Academy of Sciences, took a step back to redefine the true purpose of science education. He asked, "Scientific learning for what? For citizenship and literacy? For college preparedness? Workforce preparedness?"

Starting with these questions, Storkdieck's panel is developing an innovative new framework for science education standards that focuses on core concepts, critical thinking, and motivation to learn rather than on memorizing facts and following directions. "At the end," said Storkdieck, "I want to allow the students to develop an identity in relation to science, to understand where they might need it in their lives."

We can use America's competitive nature to jump-start programs for better science education, said physicist S. James Gates Jr of the University of Maryland, a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. According to the Programme for International Student Assessment, which evaluates student learning in developed countries, students in the United States rank 17th on science and 24th on math among developed countries.

"The genetic code of this country means that we're proud to be number one, not number 24," Gates said.

Still, change will not be easy. Gates pointed out that the American education system is complex, decentralized, and lacks any mechanism for incremental improvement or reform. Unlike science, where new knowledge and evidence is constantly building and refining our understanding of the world, new research on education and learning has little or no effect on how we teach or what students learn.

"We have a broken cycle of innovation," he said. "We're not going to get anywhere unless we're able to invest in the teacher workforce."

In spite of this daunting challenge, Gates is optimistic. "We as a country win because we innovate," he said. "There's about 200 years of history to suggest we're good at that game, and that we can beat the world at that game."

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Elizabeth Lindhardt Robinson is a junior at Columbia University majoring in neuroscience. She is also the editor-in-chief of the Columbia Science Review, a student magazine that presents science to a general audience in a creative, jargon-free way. Reach her at erob528@gmail.com.

Feb. 24, 2010

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