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Encouraging Top Science Talent

One Christmas I remember a neighbor got a chemistry set as a gift. He was interested in the set for a few days and then it became the toy that several of us played with for weeks on end. We continued to use the equipment even after the chemicals ran out. How do we capture that sort of enthusiasm for science in our classrooms and what dividends would it pay for our students in later life?

The folks at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development tackled this tough question in a white paper titled “Top of The Class”.
http://www.pisa.oecd.org/dataoecd/44/17/42645389.pdf

Some of the findings are not generally surprising.

Top performers in science:

  • Spend more time studying science in and out of school
  • They are engaged learners indicating they enjoy studying science
  • They watch science TV shows and participate in science activities outside of class
  • They generally care about doing well in school
  • They are confident learners.

Some findings may not be as intuitive.

  • Only about 60% of the top performers indicate they want to work in a field related to science.
  • Only about 50% of the top performers indicate they are well informed about careers in science fields.
  • Across subject areas and countries female students are as likely to be top performers as males.
  • In the typical OECD country about a quarter of the top performers come from a socio-economic background below that country’s average.

What the findings tell us is that engaging students in useful science with a focus on how knowing science could serve them in careers is critically important. Family income is not a barrier to talent or to motivation for top science talent. In the United States we should be at the top of our game as education is available to all. We are not and that could impact the country economically in the future.

All economic indicators point to the future success of a country as dependent on that country’s ability to innovate. In the US we have produced a fair share of the global innovations over the year and yet in technology we are losing our ground. Complex and creative thinking, once the hallmark of the American education system is now in the background replaced by standards that often value facts over thinking and application. Our testing system in many states plays a big part in this misdirection.

Rather than tackle the mind numbing task of reforming a bureaucratic system bent on perpetuating this flawed thinking I will focus on what we can do in our classes tomorrow to help our top students develop their scientific talent.

First, we need to increase student engagement. There are a number of internet programs and contests focused on science that can involve students in group work that extends the school day beyond class time and flexes their creative thinking skills. Increasing the visibility of science can help but only if paired with engaging classes that capture student interest. Some schools have been offering forensic science courses to capture interest. Others have revised courses to include career infused science courses that blend agriculture, foods, plastics, and even art with rich rigorous science.
http://www.tryscience.org/parents/se_7.html

Second we need to increase the visibility of science related careers. Often a student will indicate that they have selected a possible career focus for their college study because of one interaction in their school with someone from that career.

Several sites give wonderful views of these careers and links to practitioners in the fields.
http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/science_careers.shtml
http://www.pbs.org/safarchive/5_cool/53_career.html

Third we need to more effectively communicate not only what a rich science background looks like but also the career and economic advantages of such a background. The report from OECD provides links to lots of these resources.
http://www.pisa.oecd.org/dataoecd/44/17/42645389.pdf

In my class I have revised the focus to more application, infused a career project, invited more career speakers and even added contests. All of these ideas help. However, I am struck by the idea that by the 11th grade I may be too late.

My students in advanced chemistry were trained to take out interesting science lessons. This idea was not unique as several teachers across the country have similar and often more organized programs. Even with a bit of organized chaos the intent of my program was to introduce younger students to science engagement at earlier ages. The program did impact my enrollment in upper level science.  I think the big idea is to do even more.

Elementary teachers are interested in doing more science and often feel unprepared to offer the rich science experiences they think are necessary. We could muster resources both physical (equipment) and human to help. There are some amazing internet activities (Journey North, Flat Classrooms Project) that involve thousands of elementary classes and pair them up with science content specialists. Still, these teachers facing a huge mountain of “other” content that must be covered may need even more low level assistance. Often simply helping line up parent assistance or help form some of the students in the high school who might want to become teachers can free up enough time for science to gain a foothold at the elementary levels.

As we move to making science more engaging and career focused we have to make certain that what we are requiring from our students involves more creative thinking both in daily work and on assessments.  In several recent blog posts there are multiple ideas for using the PISA assessment items to improve our own tests. I know that teachers out there have some amazing creative ideas for revising what we do in science to make student engagement the norm rather than an exception. I will keep searching for those rich programs and make sure they are highlighted on Hot Chalk. In the meantime I invite all to gather up a care package of some science “stuff” that sits unused on one of your shelves and take it to a local elementary teacher with a promise to connect via e-mail and begin the science engagement journey as a team.

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