Let's face it, we are a nation of scientific illiterates. In the past decade, national and local studies of every conceivable type have held the mirror of reality up to our noses. Americans, sadly, are near the bottom of the heap when it comes to educating our youth in science and mathematics.
To understand the scope of the problem, a few statistics are in order.
American high school students score ninth in physics, 11th in chemistry and 13th in biology when compared to students from 13 other nations. That may be understandable, although not acceptable, when making comparisons to Australia, Canada, England and Japan. But, should our children also rank below students from Hungary, Italy, Poland and Singapore? And the situation is even worse at the elementary school level.
Fully half of the doctoral students in science and math at American universities are from foreign countries. United States corporations report having major difficulties recruiting qualified scientists and mathematicians, even in defense-related industries. According to the National Science Foundation, within years this country will be short more than 500,000 scientists and engineers.
Taking the Peter Pan approach to fixing this enormous problem, the National Governors Association recently announced a goal of making our nation Number One in science and math by the year 2000. I can't shake the image of 50 governors waving those huge foam plastic fingers in the air, jumping up and down, shouting "We're Number One!" Like most political solutions to complex problems, this one is long on catchy slogans and short on detail (and money). Like the War on Drugs , we'll get one or two promising results and then on to the next fire.
Over the past few years, as national attention has focused on science and math education, I have heard some good ideas for addressing aspects of this thorny problem, many mediocre suggestions, and a long list of lousy ones. In some cases, local school districts have done an excellent job of fostering scientific literacy. In other cases, corporations have taken a lead role in helping schools educate youth in science and math.
At a conference sponsored by International Business Machines, S. C. Johnson and Son, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and other organizations, business leaders spent three days with scientists and elementary educators discussing ways business can support quality science education in the critical formative years of elementary school. There was no shortage of excellent programs already at work, and others in the planning stages. As I wrote the conference report, I remember jotting down a note to myself that, in isolation, nearly every one of these fine programs was doomed to failure.
The problem is not in a lack of good programs. Rather, it is the absence of a comprehensive, highly integrated approach to addressing all of its many facets.
The first step to comprehensively attacking the issue is to recognize the barriers that prevent quality science education.
Teacher training institutions are not up to the task of training teachers in science instruction. They lack proper equipment, flexible scheduling and faculty with enough real-life classroom experience themselves.
Next, schools are simply not set up to teach science, especially at the elementary level. Good science instruction is sometimes noisy, as kids work in groups, share exciting findings and discuss results of experiments. What most principals would rather have is a quiet, sit-in-your-seat-and-face-forward classroom.
So, rather than risk censure, teachers "do" science by assigning reading and questions from a textbook. Very neat, very quiet and very much not even remotely like what the process of science is really about. As Albert Einstein once said when asked about science instruction in America, "It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry."
Good science instruction costs money for equipment and supplies. Special laboratories or flexible room arrangements are needed. And, the need for flexible scheduling to allow for experiments and projects is a barrier to a school system which still operates on the 19th century model of fixed class periods and fixed seating.
Furthermore, teaching science requires excellent management skills by teachers, skills for which they are ill-trained.
School systems respond to community pressure. If reading and writing scores are down, heads roll. As a result, administrators emphasize those areas to the exclusion of others. Meanwhile, teachers with inadequate science training are more than happy to avoid science instruction in favor of reading, for which they are generally well-prepared.
It's tempting to pin the blame for this illiteracy on the schools. However, on the grand scale, their contribution to the problem is minuscule. The real problem lies in a society where athletes get the glory and the student-scholar is labeled a geek; where Bart Simpson is the folk hero model for a wide swatch of society that shuns intellectual achievements; where the assumption is that science is only taught in schools ; where, in the age of space stations, many Americans still read and believe in horoscopes.
No, when we finally open our eyes and see the enemy, we will realize it is us.
In next week's column, I'll explore ways that we might collectively address this complex problem and prepare our society for life in the 21st century.
Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works wit charitable organizations and for-profit companies.