In my role as president of Society for Science & the Public, I'm often invited to speak to the leaders of science fairs in countries that participate in SSP's Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. I'm frequently asked, albeit politely, why the biggest economic powerhouse in the world is doing relatively poorly in the area of science education.
The answer is complicated, but education policy experts generally agree on the culprit: we tend to constrain instructors to teach objectively measurable facts, limiting their freedom to encourage discovery and creativity and instead rewarding them for "teaching to the test." Complicating the picture, each of our 50 states, with different priorities and values for education, controls the structure, funding, and politics of education.
But now there is cause for optimism. This week, a group that includes Nobel laureates, science researchers and education officials announced a list of Next Generation Science Standards for K-12 education. They emphasize the value of starting early with hands-on experimentation, as opposed to the memorization of facts. Officials from 26 states have already taken a big step in the right direction by beginning the painstaking process of seeking buy-in of these progressive standards from their education hierarchies.
Since it's not likely that Congress will pass legislation forcing top-down federal standards, these new standards may be our best hope to ensure that science education does not become a "race to the bottom" because of the drive for assessment, pressure to adopt the most easily-measurable curricula, and the political and even religious dispositions of those who control state public education. Science education is vital for the future success of our students. Whether or not they go on to a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), a basic knowledge of science -- indeed, more fundamentally, a basic understanding of what is science, versus, for example, conjecture, "conventional wisdom," belief, or opinion -- is necessary to thrive in an increasingly technological global economy.
The emphasis on hands-on research is critical. Nothing is more mind-numbing and less inspiring to students than memorization for the sake of memorization. What a tragedy to make science boring! Some aspects of science may seem "hard," indeed sometimes are hard, but rarely is it boring. Happily, the inverse is also true: when a student discovers something by doing, it's a uniquely empowering experience. This is true regardless of whether the discovery is novel or whether its original discovery was thousands of years before.
The Next Generation Science Standards encourage students to have "skin in the game" by creating hands-on research that not only requires the rigor and structure of responsible, replicable experimentation, but also pulls in relevant concepts of chemistry, biology, math, statistics, physics, and/or engineering in order to reach a satisfying conclusion. And hands-on research provides lots of knowledge: the kind students are likely to internalize because they are invested in it.
To this end, SSP has offered for more than 70 years the world's most prestigious science competitions. In addition to the Intel ISEF, SSP hosts the Intel Science Talent Search and, for middle school students, the Broadcom MASTERS. These programs motivate students because they recognize, reward and inspire them to engage in independent scientific research.
Every student should have the opportunity to learn by discovering. Studies have shown higher levels of comprehension among students who participate in hands-on activities as compared to listening to a lecture. Students who engage in this way are also better able to connect what occurs inside the classroom with the broader world.
As most students, teachers and parents know, education is moving increasingly online -- with, perhaps appropriately, science education leading the way through innovative resources like the Khan Academy and MOOCs (massive open online courses) that are often offered free of charge. Informal, self-driven resources like these are terrific, but are not in themselves sufficient for a solid science education unless combined with hands-on experimentation.
Society for Science & the Public recognizes this shifting landscape; it is dedicated to providing intelligent, credible, concise science journalism and education content to a broad range of audiences. The Society intends for this to inform, educate and inspire students and adults, whether or not their education and/or careers are dedicated to STEM. This in turn will contribute to the public's appreciation of and engagement with the central role of hands-on science in education and in the advancement of our health, economy and prosperity.