Science education lacking in Maryland

In state known for research, too little attention to science education

  • Valeriya Gaysinskaya, left and a graduate student in biology, watches as Kiara Parker, 15, looks into a fluorescent confocal microscope at mouse sperm cells. Parker is a student at Baltimore Talent Development High School.
Valeriya Gaysinskaya, left and a graduate student in biology,… (Kim Hairston, Baltimore…)
March 09, 2011|By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

When Hank Zwally wants to do a science experiment, he climbs through a hole in his bedroom closet into an unfinished attic room where the high school senior has constructed an elaborate 10-by-12-foot cube of blue insulation.

Beside the holiday decorations and the ski equipment, Zwally is trying to test a theory about global warming. When he enters the cube, the Eagle Scout can open a freezer where he is measuring the freezing and thawing cycles of sea water in two large tanks.

Zwally is a science whiz, a Centennial High School senior driven since youth to solve problems in biology.

Maryland desperately needs more Hank Zwallys.

Just how to nurture them is a question that worries state education leaders, including William Kirwan, the chancellor of the University System of Maryland.

For all its powerful research universities, its biotech parks, its aerospace and technology companies, Maryland hasn't been effective in educating its children in science, according to experts. Kirwan is one of the leaders now focused on how to do that here and across the nation as the Obama administration pushes science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, initiatives.

"If we are not successful at addressing the problem, we are going to lose this tremendous advantage [in Maryland's economy]. It is a very STEM-driven economy," Kirwan said. "It is our future, but … we have this enormous challenge."

On the most recent round of national science tests, Maryland scored in the middle of the pack of states, considered a relatively poor outcome when compared to its reading and math results. While 40 percent of Maryland's eighth-graders score proficient or better in math, 28 percent of eighth-graders scored proficient or better in science on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a rigorous test given to a sampling of students in a variety of subjects. Baltimore students had some of the worst scores among 17 urban districts in the nation.

Even top students aren't garnering the same national recognition they were five years ago. For the past few years, Maryland has had only one finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search, one of the most prestigious science competitions for high-schoolers. Between 2004 and 2007, the state produced 15 finalists and six winners.

Science teachers and college presidents say the state's public schools could be doing much more to support and nurture students' interest in science.

The problem begins in elementary school, where most teachers aren't trained to teach science. Middle schools and high schools don't always have classrooms equipped for science experiments, and even when they do, class sizes are so large that teachers have a difficult time having students do experiments safely, teachers say. In addition, Maryland has no science fair, and only a few schools in the state — Centennial and River Hill in Howard, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, and Montgomery Blair in Montgomery County — consistently have students in competitions, said Zwally's teacher, Michelle Bagley.

At the heart of the issue, most educators say, is improving science teaching in Maryland and the nation.

When compared to 49 other countries around the globe, the United States ranks 41st in the likelihood that a high school student will be taught by a teacher who majored in science in college, according to David E. Drew, a professor at the Claremont Graduate University in California who has written a book on STEM.

"I would rather a child be taught by an exciting teacher using a math-science curriculum from the 1950s than a boring teacher with a new curriculum," Drew said. "I think successful STEM reform comes down to recruiting outstanding people into teaching, preparing them well and providing ongoing professional development."

Kirwan has made a pledge to triple the number of STEM teachers that Maryland colleges and universities produce by 2015, which he calls a "heavy lift."

"That is the kind of urgency we feel on this issue," he said, adding that investments should be made in training teachers, new curriculum and new learning strategies.

Zwally, who said he grew up in a family fascinated by how the world works, said teachers have had an enormous influence on him. "I have had some of the most wonderful science teachers. I couldn't have asked for any better environment to nurture [me]. The passion of the teachers and the drive they have has been invaluable," he said.

Michelle Shearer, an AP chemistry teacher at Urbana High School in Frederick County and the Maryland Teacher of the Year, said the focus needs to be on the elementary grades, where science has been relegated to a subject taught when teachers can snatch time from other subjects.

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