The DeHavilland Blog

Friday, October 14, 2005

Improving science and math education

I recently responded to a question on the Business Education Network forum (link to their site - including the forum - here) and thought I'd share my post here as well, since (I hope) it makes for good conversation on a critical subject. The question was about science and math instruction, to the effect of "what can we do to improve our international standings in this area." I'm a little embarassed by the length - it turned into a pretty long-winded tear - but there's a lot to be said. Here's my response:

Decided to launch the forum with the easy questions, I see :-)

Seriously, it took us a long time to get in the situation we're in, and it's going to take some time to turn things around. We need to respect the scope of the challenge ahead of us; it's going to take much more than a better textbook or an after-school program to drive real change in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education. We also need to respect the fact that the rankings are a moving target - other countries aren't sitting still, but rather continuing to improve their own instructional practices and build learning infrastructure as we work to regain our footing.

Improving STEM education, IMHO, is something that needs to be approached holistically. There are a lot of moving parts here, and if we only fix one or two, the rest will continue to hold us down. A few areas to consider:

- A national call to action, akin to Kennedy's vision in 1961 to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Thomas Friedman argues that after 9/11, we had the opportunity to do something similar around energy (perhaps eliminating oil imports by the end of the decade by developing domestic alternatives), and I don't think it's too late to follow through on that.

- Teacher orientation to STEM instruction at all grade levels, particularly early grades. Someone in the science/math breakout session at the summit mentioned that our elementary teachers tend not to cover science and math since they've not been exposed to or trained in it; this compares to China, where specialists are on hand to infuse these subjects into the curriculum.

- An understanding of - and dissemination of - effective instructional practices in science and math education. I was amazed to hear a report from the National Academies National Research Council that our approach to science labs was, by and large, ineffective and largely unrelated to the curriculum (press release at, and if I'm not mistaken, the head of the NSTA largely agreed with their findings.

- Assessment is critical, and we have a major opportunity for greater attention to science as it falls under the NCLB umbrella next year. However, as I understand it, we still don't know how we're going to assess science knowledge, and that's a make-or-break decision. Is it going to be rote memorization, which is easy to test but ineffective in driving understanding and engagement? Or will it be more hands-on, but harder to test?

- We also need to link science and math to our kids' lives, highlighting real-world applications of STEM (introducing kids to robotics, computer programming of video games, and the like) and (and I understand this one's a long shot) glorifying STEM in popular culture. Friedman mentions how in China, Bill Gates is their version of Brittany Spears, while in the US, Brittany Spears is Brittany Spears. Glorifying our techheads, and finding ways to make science and math cool (which we do to some extent with shows like CSI and NUMB3RS), helps shape the national culture.

- We need STEM mentors for our kids, since mentors can make these subjects accessible, put a human face on these areas, and encourage students along certain career paths. Not only should we encourage scientific institutions to get involved in volunteer, mentor, and internship programs, we should also recognize that there's a huge opportunity arising as waves of baby boomer scientists start retiring.

In terms of corporate involvement, all of these areas are fair game, and any such initiatives would be making a contribution to STEM education. But I think we have to recognize that it's going to take a large effort in every one of these areas (and any others I've overlooked) to enact a coordinated effort towards change, which IMHO is the only way to improve our standing relative to the rest of the world.


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