Bayer Corporation's Rebecca Lucore is worried about the future. "We're a science and research-based company, so science is the lifeblood of everything we do, and students in the United States are just not taking an interest in science or pursuing science," says Lucore, the company's manager of community affairs. "When we look down the road, will we have a future workforce to pull from?"
This concern has spurred the company's investment in its 13-year-old Making Science Make Sense (MSMS) program, designed to get elementary and middle school students excited about science. Keeping the workforce vital will require tapping into the talent of under-represented groups, Lucore notes, and while MSMS isn't targeted solely to minority students, the changes it brings about are often most noticeable in under-resourced schools.
MSMS's largest component is its Science Education Reform Program, which provides materials and training to help public school teachers turn their science lessons into hands-on learning experiences. "The students are actually learning science like scientists do," Lucore says. "They're working in teams, analyzing things, working with kits and modules, predicting what's going to happen, and then, when something else happens, going back and figuring out why."
A five-year evaluation by University of Pittsburgh researchers confirmed the efficacy of the Pittsburgh-area portion of the program, which has been spun off as its own nonprofit group, ASSET (Achieving Student Success Through Excellence in Teaching). Fifth-grade ASSET students' scores on a standardized science test were higher than those of their peers who did not participate in the program, and competitive with seventh-grade scores from high-performing countries such as Japan and Singapore.
MSMS works by creating excitement about science among teachers, who pass the enthusiasm along to their students. Barbara Cornibe, a Pittsburgh-area teacher who used MSMS in her own third-grade classroom and is now a teacher-trainer for ASSET, remembers the luxury of having well-stocked science kits regularly delivered by the program. "It felt like Christmas," she says.
Many under-resourced schools can't afford science materials beyond textbooks, making hands-on learning nearly impossible for students. And those that do invest in the materials often find the upkeep prohibitive, as the consumable portions of the kits get depleted and other components get lost or broken, Cornibe points out.
Cornibe says the program also gives classroom teachers the luxury of the time and space to learn. "If you take a science teacher at the high school level, they're a physics teacher or a biology teacher or a chemistry teacher, but if you're an elementary teacher, you're expected to teach all three," she says. "You might have had only one or two science courses, and yet there's the expectation that you're going to teach all this."
MSMS also includes a volunteer program through which about 1,200 Bayer employees visit classrooms, judge science fairs, and provide other services to schools. A public outreach component delivers the message about the importance of science education, particularly for girls and minorities. Mae Jemison, a physician and the first woman of color to go into space, is the program's spokesperson.
The outreach program this year commissioned a survey of parents of minority students. It found that while parents view careers in science as desirable for their children, they feel kids aren't getting enough information about what those careers are or how to pursue them.
Bayer plans to make these findings the centerpiece of a company-sponsored forum in Washington, DC, next year. The forum will offer participants the chance to address minority issues in science education and share best practices from successful programs for girls and minorities around the country.