The Worrying State of Science Education

How can we reform science education?

Ask a scientist in their mid 50s or older where they were in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy spoke to Congress about the urgency of sending a man to the moon, and chances are they’ll remember.

After the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite, into space in 1957, competing against the Russians in science and technology became a national obsession. The federal government poured money into improving science education, sponsoring summer institutes on college campuses for K-12 teachers and awarding grants to science education experts to develop cutting-edge textbooks and curricula. The American students who studied science during this period went on to invent the artificial heart, the personal computer, rockets that have flown to Mars and two-in-one shampoo.

Reform agenda

Science educators and researchers consider these four areas particularly ripe for reform:


There’s a growing consensus that students study too many science topics, but not in enough depth. “Many existing national, state and local standards and assessments, as well as the typical curricula in use in the United States, contain too many disconnected topics given equal priority,” a 2006 report from the National Research Council found. The NRC recently launched a project to write a new set of national standards with the National Science Teachers Association, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other groups that will identify a more manageable set of essential concepts that students must understand. The NRC’s previous science education standards, published in 1996, have strongly influenced state standards.

Elementary education

Sixty-five percent of scientists and science graduate students said their interest in science began before middle school, according to a study in the March 2010 International Journal of Science Education. Women were more likely to report that their interest was sparked by school-related activities, while most men said trying experiments at home and reading science fiction inspired them.


STEM education experts want to see more inquiry and problem-solving in science classrooms, especially at the high school level. The College Board is revising its AP science courses, beginning with biology, to reduce emphasis on memorizing facts and promote understanding of the scientific process through inquiry-based laboratories. In districts where in-school time is consumed with reading and math, after-school programs that give students opportunities to experiment can provide a similar boost, says Shirley Malcom, head of education and human resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “It does not substitute, but in a pinch, it’s better than nothing,” she says.


Not enough science majors teach science. Forty percent of fifth grade students in 2004 were taught math and science by teachers with a degree or certificate in those fields, federal data show. Only about one-third of high school physics teachers have a major in physics or physics education, the American Association of Physics Teachers reports. The National Science Teachers Association has long pushed to pay science teachers more than teachers in other subject areas to attract science majors away from industry jobs. “We need to get more scientists more connected to the teaching community,” says the Malcom of the AAAS. “The teaching community has not been perceived as the front lines of the scientific enterprise, but it is.”

In the years since, however, enthusiasm for science has faded. Teachers stopped turning on the television for space shuttle launches, and the federal government declared other national priorities, such as fighting terrorism at home and abroad. Hollywood and the news media once treated people in science, like John Glenn and Carl Sagan, as rock stars.

No longer.

While American students do better in science than they do in math on international comparisons, over time, science scores have not improved, while math scores have risen, and other countries have caught up. Eighth-graders’ scores on the on the 2007 Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), put the United States in the middle of the pack in science achievement, behind nine other countries, including Japan and Russia.

The United States also does not have as high a percentage of top science students as those countries do. Ten percent of American eighth-graders hit the advanced benchmark on TIMSS 2007, compared with 32 percent of students in Singapore and 13 percent of students in Hungary.

In the first seven years of the 21st century, the number of people entering science and engineering jobs grew at the smallest rate since the National Science Foundation began tracking the data in the 1950s. Foreign scientists have filled the jobs left open by Americans who lack the interest or ability to do them—25 percent of all college-educated workers in U.S. science and engineering jobs in 2003 were born abroad—but they can’t work on national defense projects and may be tempted to return home as the aerospace and pharmaceutical industries take off outside the U.S.

At the same time, scientific illiteracy is high. According to a 2009 poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, only 52 percent of Americans know that stem cells can develop into many different types of cells, and 65 percent know that carbon dioxide is a gas linked to rising temperatures. Only 47 percent of adults know what percentage of the earth’s surface is covered by water, a 2009 California Academy of Sciences survey finds.

Results on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress in science, released in January 2011, show that American students have a long way to go to improve their science skills. The 2009 test was revamped to keep up with scientific developments, so can’t be compared to prior tests, but experts were generally dismayed.

About two thirds of fourth- and eighth-graders performed below proficient on the test, and high school students did worse. Only a fifth of 12th graders were proficient or better on the test. Southern states did worse than northern states, and black and Hispanic students scored significantly lower than white and Asian students.

The state of science education is troubling because, increasingly, making personal choices, like whether to vaccinate children or how much energy to use, requires an understanding of science, educators say. In the political sphere, “there are only two possible outcomes to science illiteracy,” says James Trefil, a physics professor at George Madison University and author of “Why Science?” “The decisions get made by an elite or they get made by a demagogue.”

He blames some science educators for shutting students out. “There’s this idea that if you’re not going to be a physicist, if you can’t do the math, we don’t want to talk to you,” he says. “That sends the message that science is something for only a small elite. It’s not. It’s something everybody can understand.”

Presidential priorities

In 2009, President Barack Obama launched a new campaign to boost science education, called “Educate to Innovate.

“Yes, improving education in math and science is about producing engineers and researchers and scientists and innovators who are going to help transform our economy and our lives for the better. But it’s also about something more,” he said. “It’s about an informed citizenry in an era where many of the problems we face as a nation are, at root, scientific problems.”

Educate to Innovate has assembled a group of companies and nonprofits that will use private sector dollars to develop television programming, public service announcements and Web sites to drum up interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) activities.

Other signs that the Obama administration has science education on its radar: In the Education Department’s Race to the Top competition for $4.35 billion in education grants, states got bonus points for strategies to improve science learning; the winners of the first round, Delaware and Tennessee, both earned the maximum number of points. The president has asked for $1 billion in the government’s fiscal year 2011 budget to improve K-12 STEM education, an increase of 40 percent over the previous year. The request includes $300 million for professional development and evaluating what programs work.

The administration has also taken a stab at making science seem cool by hosting events like “Astronomy Night” for middle school students on the White House lawn.

Science educators say they need every scrap of support the Obama administration can throw their way to make up for time lost during the George W. Bush era. President Bush’s signature education law, No Child Left Behind, threatened to withhold funding from schools that failed to make progress on reading and math tests, so many elementary schools replaced science with extra reading and math prep.

“There was more damage done to science education in this country than was ever thought possible because No Child Left Behind did not talk about science,” says Jan Morrison, executive director of the Teaching Institute for Excellence in STEM, a Baltimore-based nonprofit that designs STEM education programs for schools. “For years we’re going to suffer from that.”

Many also believe positions that Bush administration officials took, including questioning theories that are not controversial among scientists like climate change and evolution, misled the public on what science tells us about the natural world. In contrast, Obama’s advisors have been lauded by the scientific community for their discoveries. White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren is a past president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science who’s studied the causes of climate change; Eric Lander, co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, is one of the principal leaders of the Human Genome Project; and Harold Varmus, the other co-chair, is a former head of the National Institutes of Health who won a Nobel Prize for identifying genes that can lead to cancer.

The Obama administration’s focus on reforming the American school system as a whole—the four changes it’s pushing are higher common standards, new ways of paying and retaining teachers, using data to inform decisions and turning around low-performing schools—may do as much to improve science education as the STEM-boosting initiatives the government is funding, says Michael Lach, a special assistant for STEM issues at the Education Department.

“A lot of the work in the past has thought that we can reform STEM education without really tackling the existing education system,” he says. “You can’t.”


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