The Worrying State of Science Education

What makes a good science teacher?

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Janice Crowley (Courtesy College Board)

What are the essential ingredients of good science teaching?

Janice Crowley, chair of the science department at Wichita Collegiate School in Kansas, faced that question last year when she had to choose between two candidates for a vacancy in earth science.

One held a Ph.D. in the discipline, while the other had a strong passion for the subject as well as his students.

“Both candidates were way beyond [qualified] what they would be teaching,” she said.

“The Ph.D. looks good on paper,” said Crowley, who holds a doctorate herself. “But, the second candidate, who held a master’s degree not in earth science but in chemistry, was all about the kids.”

Her dilemma highlights a key question: How is science best taught – and by whom?

As a teacher, “you need to know the subject,” said Martin Storksdieck, Ph.D., director of the Board on Science Education at the National Research Council. However, “independent of content knowledge, the teacher has to have the ability to make connections and excite students,” he said. “Can the teacher go deeper, be flexible and explain why something is important? This is the human part, often overlooked. And accurately measuring success is a science in itself.”

Storksdieck said the U.S. needs to rethink how it teaches science. “The idea that 30 students seated in a classroom would learn the same thing, on the face of it, doesn’t make sense,” said Storksdieck, who was educated in Germany. “You learn by doing,” he said.

Training the best science teachers

When President Barack Obama called for the government to spend $1 billion in 2011 to improve K-12 science education, he earmarked a full 30 percent to help train science teachers and to figure out which methods work best.

So what are the methods?

Here are some examples:

UTeach, a discipline-based program, places undergraduate math and science majors in education classes and gives them student-teaching experience. The program began in 1996 at the University of Texas-Austin and is now offered by 21 universities in 11 states.

Teach For America recruits a growing number of recent college graduates with strong backgrounds in math, science and engineering, who then receive content-specific training at a summer institute and targeted support during their two-year commitment.

The New Teacher Project recruits and trains high-achieving individuals to become teachers in hard-to-staff schools.

At Science Leadership Academy (SLA) in Philadelphia, they are doing just that.

The high school opened in September 2006 with a special emphasis on inquiry. Developed in partnership with The Franklin Institute, a science museum in Philadelphia, students at SLA learn in a project-based environment where research, collaboration, presentation and reflection are emphasized in all classes.

“Our engineering teacher dares kids to design green energy. Our kids have made urban windmills and bio-diesel generators, solar water heaters, solar collectors, and they’ve done so not always knowing how to do everything,” said Chris Lehmann, the school’s founding principal.

The school’s longer-than-usual class periods allow for more laboratory work in science classes and performance-based learning in all classes. Flexible schedules permit students to take advantage of dual-enrollment programs with local universities and career-development internships in laboratory or business settings.

The idea is to expand education beyond the four walls of the classroom into every facet of the students’ lives, school officials say.


At Santa Monica High School in Southern California, senior Emma Alice Miller sees physics everywhere she turns.

“When you hear a police siren coming towards you, when you look in your rearview mirror, when you look through your glasses, when you see a rainbow, when you throw a ball – they are all represented and explained by physics.”

Miller credits her high school physics teacher, Ms. Reardon, with igniting her passion for the subject. “Ms. Reardon introduced me to physics for the first time in a fun way. She gave us labs to help us better understand the material and get more involved,” said Miller.

Miller now intends to study physics in college, a decision she attributes to her experiences in Ms. Reardon’s class. “For a unit in motion, we dropped water balloons and timed them, and then did calculations on this data. Mrs. Reardon was able to get everyone in the class to participate.”

In the end, good science teaching is not just about communicating facts. “High school lessons in biology were anything but fun,” said Funmi Olopade, an internationally recognized oncologist and geneticist, physician and professor at the University of Chicago.

Memorization was the secret to Olopade’s success but it left her less than enthusiastic about the subject. One teacher, though, sparked her passion for science.

“My high school physics teacher was amazing,” she said. “He spent hours – extra time helping us with homework – and made physics fun and relevant.”

She loved her ecology class, too, where experiments in nature took her outdoors in her Nigerian homeland. Subsequent physics experiments helped her understand the laws of nature. By the time she entered medical school, she had a thirst for knowledge – and biology terminology, which she had previously languished over, now served a purpose.

And Crowley, the department chair trying to decide between the Ph.D. and the passionate teacher – which candidate did she eventually choose?

“If there’s a guy who’s great at blowing things up but can’t interact with his students,” she said, “there will be a disconnect.” And then the students lose interest.

So Crowley said she went with her gut, rejecting the Ph.D. in favor of the instructor who was passionate about teaching. Today, she says, “he’s one of the most favored teachers in the building.”

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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… See Archive

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