TIME: Teachers needed to inspire young scientists

This week’s TIME magazine’s cover story is about science, specifically whether the USA’s progress in science and technology is lagging behind other countries’ efforts. Of particular interest to me is the story about science teaching. The gist of the story is: elementary school kids in the US are doing as well as ever in science, but they are losing the race to their peers in other countries. As the article says, our kids lose their enthusiasm for science by the time they reach high school. In college, science has no appeal and students seek careers in other fields.

Science teachers are a key factor in keeping up student interest, the article continues. The numbers are discouraging, however.

The science role models most students know best are their teachers. But science teachers who are both passionate and prepared are scarce. U.S. high school students have just a 40% chance of studying chemistry with a teacher who majored in the subject, according to a 2005 report from the National Academy of Sciences. By contrast, they have a 70% likelihood of studying English with an English major. Often, educators at the elementary level never liked science in the first place.

There are financial and societal reasons for the problem. Teachers’ pay is one of the most important factors, TIME says. As I mentioned myself in an earlier post, the average salary for a beginning teacher is about $32,000; college students graduating with science, math or engineering degrees can expect to make several thousand more than that straight out of college. Another factor is the traditional source of new, talented teachers, young women, now find employment in fields formerly closed to them. The talent pool that remains, according to TIME, is unfamiliar with, and even fearful of science as a subject. These teachers communicate their responses to science to their young charges, who grow up feeling that science is dull, scary, icky, weird or so very hard that only a genius with coke-bottle glasses can learn it. (Students in the UK have similar feelings toward science, so it’s not just here.)

As a science teacher, I have no careful studies of my own to verify or refute TIME’s hypothesis, but I have plenty of anecdotal evidence. One young woman told me she loved math in grade school until her fifth grade math teacher told her she was stupid when she could not solve a problem on the board. More than one 10th grade student has told me that their middle school science classes were brain-numbingly boring, with uninspiring teachers, rote learning of terms and principles, and worksheet after worksheet. In fact, many of my students identify the middle-school years as the killjoy of science and math. And these are kids of families with comfortable incomes who have gone to reasonably good schools. One can only imagine the situation in schools with major budget and discipline problems

Of course, students are not the best judge of science teachers’ abilities, but there is a grain of truth in what they say. Critics of our profession, some of whom are practicing science teachers, recognize we collectively do a crappy job inspiring our students. Some blame standardized testing, with its reliance on short responses, recall of facts and figures, and lack of analytic questions for teachers’ emphasis on memorization. That the No Child Left Behind testing machine will begin including science in 2007 can only make the situation worse.

Some blame the textbooks, which at the elementary and secondary levels are generally written and edited by committee, saying they are dull, shallow and oversimplified. Many texts have to adhere to reading levels set down by well-meaning reading experts. The result frequently makes for very dull declarative sentences that have had the life sucked out of them. Publishers also try to bling the books up with sidebars, photo essays, and feeble attempts to make connections between science and students’ lives, pushing out the real meat of the subject.

Salaries, test-driven pedagogy and mediocre textbooks are only part of the problem. US citizens love their technology, but they give short shrift to the disciplines that make that technology possible. As in the UK, the public perception of a scientist is stereotypical. Scientists are lonely, eccentric, misanthropic geniuses who cannot explain their subjects in lay terms, and may even dress kind of funny. They are nerds, geeks, people to be ridiculed as uncool. Some scientists might fit any one of those labels, but not many. The trick is to get students to see that scientists can be as engaging and creative as an artist, golf pro, author or doctor. Science teachers might be able to overcome the stereotype, but we need help from the media and from our colleagues in industry and post-secondary institutions. If the US is really in a science decline, hiring more teachers is only part of the solution. Everyone needs to get into the act.

In an ideal world, teachers would be paid a respectable salary equivalent to other professionals (engineers, lawyers, doctors), have well written, well documented texts, and have had at least four solid years of useful training in science and science teaching. They would have the freedom, confidence and permission to look outside the normal parameters of schooling to find new ways to communicate their subject to at times unwilling recipients. Would there still be students who hate science? Sure, but at least they might understand it better.

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