A not-so-funny thing is happening on the way to the 21s century. Somehow, we keep missing the train.
As I pointed out last week, the education of our youth in science, mathematics and technology is failing miserably. We are raising a generation of young people who are abysmally ignorant of even basic scientific concepts and environmental mechanisms. That is not to say that the system fails all students. We devote significant resources to the education of talented students and the scientific elite. But, for the majority of Americans, scientific and mathematical illiteracy is a daily fact of life.
The barriers are both obvious and subtle. Teachers are ill-prepared to teach science; schools are not set up to facilitate its teaching; society does not encourage science scholarship; and both government and business have not addressed the issue in a comprehensive, coordinated manner. And, the gap in science achievement and access to science-related jobs between whites and minorities widens.
Comprehensive solutions, by definition, involve all the potential players who might have an impact on the problem. Unfortunately, we tend to look at an educational problem and simplistically suggest that the answer lies solely with the schools. That notion is rooted in the 19th century mentality that schools are the only educational force in our society.
By the same token, most public schools are still run in the same way as they were one hundred years ago -- isolated, rigid and completely divorced from the realities of today's workplace.
The idea that schools are the sole source of education simply doesn't hold water. In science, at least, there is ample evidence to suggest that schools are not even the major player in the education of our youth. Researchers at Ohio State University and other centers have found that the majority of a child's knowledge their natural world comes from nature magazines, television specials and non-school educational experiences, such as Scouting programs, museums and nature centers.
What, then, can be done to help our youth and adults be more scientifically literate?
* There needs to be bold national leadership in this area, something that has been lacking for many years. Only recently has the National Science Foundation begun to reassert its leadership in this area, albeit modestly. They recently staged a competition for states to restructure their science and math education programs. Unlike previous piecemeal programs, their Systemic Initiatives Program holds out promise to change the infrastructure of the educational system, thereby effecting large-scale change. Unfortunately, the program does not go far enough, nor is it funded to the level that truly significant change can be sustained.
* Non-school educational institutions must be formally integrated into the science and math education of our youth. These include organizations such as Boy and Girl Scouts, Boys and Girls Clubs, nature centers, museums and aquaria, and others.
* Corporations have to get more involved in education in general, and science and math education, specifically. Business must start with a roll-up-your-sleeves commitment to action by the CEO, followed by real involvement in teacher training, implementation of programs, advocacy, marketing, recognition of achievements on the part of teachers and students, training of corporate volunteers, help with recruitment of science teachers.
* The government and private industry must make a commitment to encourage minorities and women to pursue course work and careers in science and math. Right now, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. Demographic trends show that the largest increase in the work force will be among minorities and women. Today, only a small fraction of scientists are minorities. We need to provide special programs, role models, mentors, and equipment to programs which serve minority populations.
* Significant investment should be made in human resource development. Teachers and administrators should be trained in science and how to best teach it to young minds.
* We must dispel the notion that science and math are things to be learned only in school. In today's information age, we learn science from a multitude of sources, including television, movies, magazines and youth organizations. These programs must be integrated into a meaningful, relevant, total learning experience for science to be effective.
Using what I call the Matrix Model approach to resolving social issues, we could weave these and other strategies together into effective statewide programs which address science and math education in a comprehensive, highly integrated manner.
Preparing our youth for the world of the future is a critical, yet frightening, task. The bureaucracy that we call our educational system must change in order to meet its responsibilities for the future. The last trains are now leaving the station. We'd best not miss them.
Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.