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PALO ALTO, Calif. — At this moment in history, we must acknowledge that the United States has not risen to the great challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. Rather than lean into a society-wide effort to protect the most vulnerable from Covid-19, we have allowed this event to expose and expand divisions within American society.

These differences appear in personal actions, such as wearing masks (or not), and governmental policies, such as those that make testing and equipment freely available (or not).

These divisions among the general population and national leaders are widened by distrust in science and a lack of understanding of the nature of scientists’ work. An example we are living with is the change in understanding of how the coronavirus is spread. Early in the pandemic, we did not know if it lived on surfaces, so we wiped down our groceries. But at that time wearing masks was not widely promoted.

Once scientists realized that the virus spread primarily through respiratory droplets, they advised everyone to wear masks that cover the mouth and nose. Yet many people in our country looked askance when guidelines were revised or refined based upon new data. Instead of accepting the scientific practice of revising recommendations based on new data, many saw it as a weakness.

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This societal divide is real, dangerous and entirely avoidable. As science educators, we need to prepare our entire population to use and apply the practices and knowledge of science in novel ways, including working together to solve vexing and complex problems like pandemics and climate change. Current and future challenges will require all of us to use scientific ideas and practices to develop solutions.

Leaders in both the private and public sectors recognize the need for a diverse group of scientists, technologists and engineers to create solutions informed by different perspectives that resonate with all of society. To meet this need, we must start young. We must make certain that all students see themselves as scientists, and that all students in all grades receive a robust, culturally relevant science education.

Teachers creating a glucose molecule as part of an activity about photosynthesis. Credit: Jennifer Ray, Center to Support Excellence in Teaching, Stanford University

There are several conditions that currently prevent this. Typically, K-5 science education is considered the lesser of equals in a school system that places a premium on mathematics and English language arts (ELA) instructional time and state test scores. According to the 2018 National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education, K-3 students receive an average of 18 minutes of instruction per day in science, compared to 89 minutes in ELA and 57 minutes in math.

State test scores are given outsized weight when evaluating a school’s quality, and ELA and math are the exclusive subjects tested at many grade levels. Science time is often sacrificed to provide additional time for ELA and math.

As we confront the lack of diversity in STEM professions and the general public’s lack of confidence in the work of leading scientists, we must recognize that we have designed a system in which K-5 science instruction is undervalued.

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It is not only the amount of science instruction that students are provided; it is also the nature of the curricula to which teachers have access. To learn and value science, students need opportunities to experience the work of science by behaving as scientists. However, science curricula have historically emphasized reading about scientific concepts and learning vocabulary rather than having students ask questions about scientific phenomena, conduct investigations, analyze data, and develop and revise explanations as they explore and learn.

A May 2020 report by the Southern Regional Education Board promotes three key solutions. Schools should aim for at least 60 minutes of science instruction and investigations per day; teachers should combine literacy practice with science learning (as studies have shown that this combination in the upper elementary grades can result in greater gains in both subjects); and schools should support elementary teachers to teach science in ways that allow students to engage in science, develop understandings of concepts that are pervasive across all of science, and build the core ideas of science.

“As we confront the lack of diversity in STEM professions and the general public’s lack of confidence in the work of leading scientists, we must recognize that we have designed a system in which K-5 science instruction is undervalued.”

We contend that “normal” science education has systematically eliminated many from pursuing STEM careers and led to a society that struggles to use science in its daily decision-making. We must accept that the pre-pandemic normal was never good enough. As we look toward a world in which there is a vaccine for Covid-19, we need to leverage the disruption that the pandemic has brought to education. We must reconsider how we allocate time and what content we privilege in our K-5 schools.

We all want a resilient society, able to make personal and collective decisions that reflect community values from multiple perspectives. We want a country that can lead the world in developing science and engineering solutions.

As the format for school this fall continues to be hotly debated, we should not retreat from our commitment to science education. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 brought the need for a scientifically literate populace to the forefront of American consciousness. In the same way, we must consider this pandemic our generation’s calling to enliven science education, particularly in the early grade-levels.

The immediate and tragic consequences of this pandemic will be primarily addressed by today’s adults, but the long-term consequences of Covid-19 and future crises will be addressed by today’s students. We want them to do better than we have.

Jim Ryan is executive director of OpenSciEd, an initiative of the National Center for Civic Innovation that partners with states and education leaders to build freely available high-quality middle-grades science curricula.

Janet Carlson is an associate professor at Stanford University and faculty director of the Center to Support Excellence in Teaching (CSET). CSET works in educational partnerships to solve persistent problems of practice by improving the quality of instruction, keeping equity at the center of the work and developing leading educators.

This story about U.S. science education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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