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U.S. Science Education: Rethinking How Kids Learn

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The U.S. is becoming increasingly concerned over learning among the country's youth in areas of science and math. International testing has shown that American students fall behind foreign counterparts in a number of subjects. But is it just about the text and the test?

Students in Shanghai who took international exams for the first time outscored every other school system in the world. In the same test, American students ranked 25th in math, 17th in science and 14th in reading. A 2009 study showed that U.S. students ranked 25th among 34 countries in math and science -- behind states like China, Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Finland.

A report last month revealed that California is failing to provide high-quality science education to public elementary school students -- just 10 percent of elementary classrooms provide regular hands-on science experiments, and fewer than half of surveyed school principals think their students would receive high-quality science instruction in their respective schools.

President Barack Obama has made a call for improving science, technology, engineering and math education over the next decade through a number of partnerships and initiatives, and the U.S. Navy announced in June a plan to invest more than $100 million in science and technology education by 2015.

"I want us all to think about new and creative ways to engage young people in science and engineering, whether it's science festivals, robotic competitions, fairs that encourage young people to create and build and invent, to be makers of things, not just consumers of things," Obama said during his 2009 address at a meeting of the National Academy of Sciences.

But what role do informal ways of learning contribute to science education? On Talk of the Nation, NPR's Ira Flatow asks, how important are museums, TV shows and after-school clubs to teaching kids science?

Flatow discusses the issue with Lynn D. Dierking, interim associate dean for research at the College of Education, Techbridge Executive Director Linda Kekelis and Susan Singer, Laurence McKinley Gould professor of the natural sciences at Carleton College.

"I think that what these opportunities do for children and adults is they help them understand at a deeper level some of the things that they have learned in school or they may get them excited about something that then they want to pursue in more depth in school," Dierking tells Flatow. "But there's definitely evidence in my work and the work of other people doing research on this area that these experiences can be exceedingly powerful."

LISTEN to the full Talk of the Nation report below, and visit NPR's website for the complete transcript.

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