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How to Improve Science Education: Ideas from Professors, Scientists, and Students
When asked what they want to be when they grow up, young students choose a wide variety of careers, from doctor or veterinarian (I wanted to be a marine biologist) to writer, artist, or teacher. As they grow, their commitments change and solidify, and often when you follow up with a “Why?,” they’ll say, “Because I’m good at it.”
However, when students test poorly in science, this attitude precludes careers in science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) and may be scaring potential scientists away from admirable and fulfilling careers. Armed with this knowledge, Claudia Dreifus of the New York Times asked professors, scientists, and students how science education can be improved.
Students want real-world, hands-on science projects
The students interviewed in this piece collectively voiced the idea that they wanted science to be more approachable. Dianne Marie Omire-Mayor, a high school senior from Washington, said, “I’d like more hands-on projects,” and fifth grader Deon Sanders of Lakeland Elementary in Baltimore said science and math education should be “more about life.”
These responses articulate a very real problem with our educational system’s old science and math models: the focus on content outweighs the idea of science or math as creative affairs that require exploration. Instead, rote memorization or plug-and-play formulas are the focus of science and math training, while creativity is only revered in writing, art and music.
Oobleck and more: Creative, fun science immersion
Scientists and educators echoed the students’ desires that science and math be hands-on, advocating programs that involve the whole family in science. Scientific American editor Mariette DiChristina suggests that making science readily available for families to engage with as a sort of play translates to an excitement about science that extends into student engagement in the classroom. Scientific American’s online column Bring Science Home gives parents easy-to-read instructions for activities that are accessible and fun.
Other scientists and educators extend the idea of play in math and science with a goal of creative expression. Paulo Blikstein, director of Transformative Learning Technologies Laboratory at Stanford University, suggested a once-a-week school day “devoted to invention, an ‘Idea Day,’” that emphasizes the importance of a creative mind in science and math.
John Maeda, President of the Rhode Island School of Design and former director of research at the MIT Media Lab, echoed Blikstein’s comments, saying he would invite art teachers into collaborative work with STEM teachers to bring big benefits to the science and math communities by highlighting the creativity so often admired of artists. Maeda finished by saying he’d like to see how artists collaborate with scientists to create “STEM turned into STEAM.”
Real-word connections with science: Partnering teachers with the scientific community
Depth of content for teachers as well as collaborative engagement with practicing scientists and mathematicians was another common concern among those interviewed. There are lofty goals like Alan Leshner’s suggestion that teaching be restructured in a way that attracts scientists to the classroom, but others like his suggestion to take advantage of the scientific community’s desire to help.
Freeman Hrabowski III, President of the University of Maryland, suggested that teachers also need to be immersed in the scientific community, suggesting that, “partnerships involving school systems, the corporate sector, and government,” help engage STEM teachers with real-life problems and research so that educators are able to answer that age-old question When am I ever going to use this? with hands-on examples.
Another important sentiment among these scientists, educators, and students was that students need to feel confident and connected. Students can be connected by meeting community scientists or mathematicians through mentoring programs, or by being invited directly into research meetings. Biochemist Michael Summers discussed his experience with a group of students who discovered, once they were engaged in hands-on and valuable experiments, that “they think of themselves as scientists now.”
Teaching students how they can help others with science
Principal of Lakeland Elementary in Baltimore, Najib Jammal, notes that students should “apply their STEM learning to projects that benefit their community.” When students have affected positive change in the world due to their science or mathematics knowledge, they are likely to feel compelled to continue.
This compulsion combined with encouraging creativity and experimentation in science and math classes can help fight the “imposter syndrome” Maria Klawe identifies as an ongoing problem for those who are underrepresented in the field. This frequent sense of being a failure often drives women out of STEM studies or careers. If STEM students are engaged in science as action, in math as play, and in both as a creative expression, it is likely that they will see themselves not as imposters but as the actively engaged problem-solvers STEM careers are seeking.
Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current adjunct faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.