Although 13 days shy of my 5th birthday, I clearly remember listening to a series of beeps coming from our big black desktop radio on 4 Oct 1957. The Soviet Union had launched the world’s first satellite Sputnik I and placed it into orbit in space. Even though I had no idea what a satellite was, I understood my parents’ concern that our nation was in danger. That concern was shared by practically every adult in the nation and translated into public policy. The federal government poured money into improving math and science education.
Americans won the race to the moon as a result of the science and technology focus, and students who studied science during this period went on to invent the personal computer, advanced medical technology, vehicles that have probed our solar system and beyond, and Velcro.
Enthusiasm and respect for science has faded in the years since. The federal government has other priorities, space shuttle launches are being phased out, and Hollywood and the news media no longer treat people in science as stars. In the first seven years of this century, the number of people entering science and engineering grew at the smallest rate since the National Science Foundation began keeping track of the numbers in the 1950s. Science scores put American students in the middle compared to other countries, behind nations like Japan, Russia, Singapore, and Hungary.
Science educators and researchers consider these four areas in most need for reform:
- Standards. Many experts feel that students study too many science topics, but not in enough depth. “Many existing national, state, and local standards and assessments, as well as curricula in use in the United States, contain too many disconnected topics given equal priority,” a 2006 report from the National Research Council found.
- Elementary Education. A recent study published in the International Journal of Science Education found that 65 percent of scientists said their interest in science began before middle school. Women were more likely than men to report that their interest was sparked by school-related activities.
- Curriculum. Science education experts want to see more inquiry and problem-solving in science classrooms. There is some movement in that direction. The College Board is revising its AP science courses to reduce emphasis on memorizing facts.
- Teachers. Many people with science majors don’t teach math. Only 40% of fifth grade students are taught science by teachers with science degrees. About one-third of high school physics teachers have a major in phyics or physics education. The National Science Teachers Association has pushed to pay science teachers more than teachers in other subject areas.