Scientists in the Classroom: An Experiment that Works

A splendid opportunity exists for scientists who want to bring the excitement and joy of science discovery to today's students and, at the same time, profoundly improve the quality of science education. So say the nation's precollege science teachers. As a scientist I've long been aware of the value of scientist-volunteers in the classroom. It seems science teachers concur. In a new survey commissioned by Bayer Corp. and the National Science Teachers Association, U.S. K-12 science teachers sa

By | September 13, 1999

A splendid opportunity exists for scientists who want to bring the excitement and joy of science discovery to today's students and, at the same time, profoundly improve the quality of science education. So say the nation's precollege science teachers.

As a scientist I've long been aware of the value of scientist-volunteers in the classroom. It seems science teachers concur. In a new survey commissioned by Bayer Corp. and the National Science Teachers Association, U.S. K-12 science teachers say that they are increasingly looking to professional scientists to help strengthen science education.

In a very real sense, science teachers are right there with us on the front line of discovery and innovation. As scientists triumphantly find ways to slow the speed of light, identify planets orbiting distant stars, and produce bioengineered therapies for all manner of diseases, science teachers are preparing today's students for the world where these discoveries will be implemented and have wide-ranging impacts.

Ironically, as the rate of worldwide scientific advancement increases, U.S. students, particularly at the middle and high school levels, falter in science and math. As the recent Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) revealed, our eighth and 12th graders simply fall short in these subjects when compared with students from countries we consider our economic peers.

It's a situation not at all lost on science teachers. In fact, in The Bayer Facts of Science Education V: Science Teachers Speak,1 they called the students' poor performance on TIMSS an accurate reflection of how students perform every day in the classroom. Many of the science teachers went even further out on a limb, risking their own reputations, to say they lack confidence in the quality of science education today and its ability to adequately prepare our young people for the challenges of the next century.

For many Americans, including me, this is unacceptable. People are fond of saying to me: "Well, we put a man on the moon, why can't we teach science?" The answer is, we can teach science. We know what works. But as a country, we have not truly made science education reform a priority.

Why is reforming science education so important? Because the old textbook memorization approach isn't working now and never really did. In this world where information and technological advances increase exponentially, students must learn how to incorporate these changes. They do this by learning science experientially through the scientific processes of asking questions, experimenting, analyzing, and testing assumptions. In doing so they develop important lifelong skills, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and teamwork abilities--scientific literacy.

I know, I know, I'm preaching to the choir. But science teachers agree. They believe that the reforms outlined in the National Science Education Standards, which emphasize this kind of inquiry-based, hands-on learning, can significantly strengthen science education and student performance. And they were quick to point out that it will take the whole "village" for reforms to be successfully implemented in classrooms across the country. In fact, three-quarters of the teachers "strongly agree" that reform efforts will fail or fall far short of their goals without the active support of teachers; school administrators and school boards; parents and other citizens; business and industry; and, yes, the scientific community.

Scientists have a particularly important role to play in science education reform. Teachers believe that working with scientists in person in the classroom offers substantial benefits to both them and their students. Almost all of the teachers feel strongly about exposing students to scientists. It helps students better understand science content and piques their interest, while they become acquainted with scientists as role models and gain solid information on science as a career.

Mae C. Jemison, the nation's first female African-American astronaut, is a chemical engineer, physician, and professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College and the founder of The Earth We Share, an international science camp for students ages 12-16.Mae C. Jamison
Each one of these is important, but I feel particularly strongly about the importance of scientists as strong models. For so many years popular culture has barraged students mainly with images of entertainment and sports figures as career role models. In all likelihood, very few actually grow up to become professional baseball players or singers. On the other hand, many will come to have jobs that demand scientific and technological literacy. In fact, science literacy will affect virtually everyone's life--regardless of the career or job. So it's time that we give students opportunities to interact with scientists who can help them understand the relevance of science to their lives.

Though science teachers say they have more experience with student-scientist programs than with teacher-scientist programs, those that have the latter experience say it's enhanced their teaching and helped especially in the areas of professional and curriculum development. Working with scientists, they conclude, bolstered their motivation and enthusiasm for teaching the subject and helped them better understand and improve the way they teach science content.

And this is precisely where that wonderful opportunity I mentioned earlier lies. With most of the science teachers calling for more access to both kinds of these programs, scientists in the classroom can be great catalysts in creating meaningful, effective relationships between the nation's scientific and science education communities. To all of you who argue that even the best-intentioned scientist doesn't have the time in his or her busy day to devote to school volunteer efforts, I have to say you're wrong.

Some of our best, most innovative and successful companies work in science education reform efforts that involve curriculum change, teacher training, and science volunteers. Pfizer, Hewlett-Packard, Merck, and Bayer are some of the companies spearheading these efforts. Bayer, for example, through its Making Science Make Sense program, has more than 1,000 science volunteers who work in classrooms across the country igniting young minds about science and assisting teachers as they make the transition from a traditional to an experiential teaching model.

And it's not just the professional scientists employed by these specific companies who want to help strengthen science education. In last year's Bayer Facts IV survey, Scientists on Science for the 21st Century,1 the nation's Ph.D. scientists said they are ready, willing, and able to help in the nation's classrooms, if only they were asked.

So there you have it. The village has spoken. Science teachers want to work with scientists on science education. Scientists want to be involved in the classroom. And there are companies out there that have established paradigms for successful science volunteer programs. Now it's up to us to take the next step--to help achieve science literacy for all students. Nothing less than our future depends on it.

  • www.bayerus.com/msms/news/indexsurveys.html

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