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Dr. Francis Eberle

It’s hard to believe, but according to a recent Harris Interactive survey, the vast majority of Americans can’t name a single living scientist. Yet, 87 percent say they personally benefit every day from scientific advances, and 96 percent want the United States to be a world leader in science. This week, the U.S. National Academies released its initial description of what U.S. elementary and high school students should learn in science. The Board on Science Education of the National Academies welcomes public comment on the draft through August 2nd.

Meanwhile, President Obama has sought $1 billion in the FY 2011 budget to improve K-12 science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, an increase of 40 percent over the previous year. The request includes $300 million for professional development and evaluating which programs work.

Teens are enthusiastic about these subjects, with 77 percent interested in pursuing a STEM career, according to this year’s Lemelson-MIT Invention Index, an annual survey that gauges perceptions about invention and innovation. As standards for scientific literacy are developed, questions about how to prepare science teachers effectively to educate and engage students are vital.

The Hechinger Report’s Susan Sawyers spoke recently about U.S. science education with Dr. Francis Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), a professional organization representing 60,000 science educators of all grade levels. A transcript of their conversation, edited for clarity, follows.

How do you identify an exceptional teacher?

Eberle: There’s no specific definition to form a general consensus. That’s a question that’s being asked all over the country. The National Academy of Sciences outlined some characteristics for science teachers, and the NSTA has several position statements about quality science teaching. Teaching science is more than being able to take what’s in a book and saying that’s what science is.

How can we train people to be better science teachers?

Eberle: Existing research would say it can be very helpful to have a degree in science and teaching at the middle-school level and later. Knowing the subject allows them to probe and push students.

What can you tell me about core standards in science?

Eberle: There are voluntary national standards now, based on the National Science Education Standards that were created in 1996. About ten years later, the National Research Council presented “Taking Science to School” (2007). This report is a backdrop for a new set of “inquiry-based” common science core standards.

How are the common core standards being developed?

Eberle: Through a partnership of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and Achieve, the current standards are being revised. The NAS will develop a framework, which then will be used to develop the science standards.

So, is the aim of common standards to outline general scientific literacy?

Eberle: These are basic building blocks. There are fundamental ideas in science and they build over time. Therefore, students need to develop certain ideas in science before moving on. Standards, however, only outline what students need to know.

Can you give me an example?

Eberle: Consider “matter.” It might be a topic taught in fourth grade. But when students are looking at chemical interactions at the high school level, without an understanding of the ways atoms interact or if they don’t know the particular nature of matter progressing from particles to molecules to atoms and the particles that make up atoms that was taught in middle school and earlier, students will be challenged by advanced interactions when they reach high school.

Percentage of Public High School Teachers Who Majored in the Main Subject They TeachEnglish     82.8
Math     72.5
History     63.8
Spanish      74.6
Music     95.2
Biology      76.1
Chemistry     48.2
Earth sciences     33.2
Physics     57.7Source: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), “Public School Teacher Data File,” 2007-08.

What are the biggest challenges for science education?

Eberle: Currently, there are high staffing needs but the quality may not be there.

How can we do better at developing science teachers?

Eberle: Some states require mentoring, like California. But professional development varies widely. You could be a science teacher with a social studies teaching-credentialed mentor. It’s fine in terms of the day-to-day mechanics of being a teacher but not in discipline manner. A science teacher really should be paired up with a mentor who teaches the same subject. The mentor will be able to better answer questions that deal with science content and applicable classroom pedagogy.

The NSTA New Science Teacher Academy is a professional development initiative to help promote quality science teaching. It’s a year-long professional development program that pairs veteran science teachers (mentors) with science teachers who are in their second or third year of teaching.  So far it shows a 95 percent retention rate.

There’s also online mentoring for new science teachers. They come to an annual conference. They can see there’s a community of teachers who are excited about science and teaching.

Tell me about Educate to Innovate.

Eberle: It’s a unique approach trying to catalyze energy around STEM. The President has created a sense of urgency to get others besides the government involved.

Specifics? Who else is involved?

Eberle: National Lab Day is a partnership of organizations. It was more of a movement than a day. But, the locus of control is at the teacher level. It’s like Match.com and partners teachers with engineers and scientists (and vice versa) to create local partnerships. Hopefully they are lasting. People establish new contacts in their communities and it establishes relationships for teachers and students with scientists. There are about 4500 teachers, 3000 scientists and 1600 projects [on-going].

What are your biggest challenges in encouraging students to engage in science?

Eberle: The image of science is that it’s hard and arduous and you work in a room by yourself. It’s actually very collaborative. It’s not just a scientist in a lab coat. So many jobs today require a technical background. Just one example is there are lumber companies in the Pacific Northwest employing people who don’t ever touch the wood anymore. They look for grads that have technical training and can run the mills.

[For a look at how the scientific community is trying to change its image, see the “Rock Stars of Science” campaign, launched with a portfolio in the June 2009 issue of GQ magazine. “Rock Stars of Science” features rock stars alongside scientists, in an effort to raise awareness of ground-breaking research and show that scientific thought leaders can be “cool.”]

How do you get the word out so people understand science is not just about the lab coat?

Eberle: We have a Science Matters initiative, aimed at parents of elementary students. It’s the dinner-party dilemma: when people find out you’re a scientist, they immediately talk about something else. This initiative is to help parents see that science is everywhere.

There’s a lot of talk about inquiry-based learning. But lately, I’ve also looked at science curricula that are project-based. What’s the difference?

Eberle: Project-based learning should have a major portion of inquiry in it. A project-based approach should not provide a recipe for the project but allow for students to ask and answer their own questions – this is “inquiry.” The benefit of projects is that they link students to reality.

So, that’s like the sixth-grade science teacher who uses baking as her methodology? It incorporates reading, math and science.

Eberle: Yes, it could. Both “inquiry” and “project” are instructional strategies that combine hands-on work, investigating a problem and trying to uncover a solution to that problem. This can provide students with a better understanding of the discipline.

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Susan Sawyers

Susan Sawyers is a New York City based multimedia journalist and social media strategist. She is interested in education, philanthropy and lifestyle reporting. A former producer and researcher for “Bloomberg...

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