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Science education lacking in Maryland

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

March 09, 2011|By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

"We have to understand that elementary school teachers have a tremendous burden," Shearer said, because they are teaching several different subjects and may not have expertise in science. She thinks the school systems should put a science specialist in each elementary school to bring hands-on, lab projects into the classroom.

"Elementary school teachers are scared by math and science. When they don't enjoy it so much, they're more reluctant to spend more time in class," said Anne Spence, a professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and the principal investigator on a mathematics-science partnership for the National Science Foundation, which has been working on developing more STEM teachers in Baltimore County schools.

Susan Brown, who is chair of the science department at Central Middle School in Anne Arundel County, said some middle schools don't have the lab space they need. At her school, she said, two science classes are held in rooms without labs. While the teachers work together to address that problem, teaching science is more of a challenge than it should be.

To have students get the most out of labs, class sizes should be between 24 and 26 students, said Brown, a distinguished science teacher in the county. "We have classrooms with 36 students in them."

Science teachers also stress that students need to think of science, math, technology and engineering as interrelated subjects. An experimental program in Baltimore County, Spence said, introduced average students to an engineering class. When students had a reason to do math and science in a real-world context, she said, they learned those subjects much faster and boosted their scores above those of gifted and talented students.

One major issue that must be addressed, according to UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski, is how to get poor and minority students more engaged in learning science, particularly in a state where the majority of public school children are minority students. On the NAEP test, 8 percent of black students scored proficient, compared with 44 percent of white students.

But that achievement gap is around the national average, Hrabowski said. "Many states with higher scores are far less diverse and don't have the challenge of educating the children of color."

Part of the issue is that minority students sometimes have not been exposed to science, or the natural world. Adam Kim, a cell biologist and graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University, participates in a program that brings Hopkins students into the Talent Development High School in Baltimore City.

"We are using the tools we use every day as graduate students to tell them how cool science is," Kim said. Once a month, the Hopkins students try to engage the 10th-graders with interesting experiments, and have brought to classrooms zebra fish, frogs, insects and other living creatures that students might never have seen.

Many high-achieving students like Zwally were exposed to science early. As a seventh-grader, he began entering his experiments in science fairs; Bagley first saw his potential at a middle school science fair.

And unlike students at most Maryland high schools, those at Centennial can take a class that allows them to do independent research, as Zwally does with Bagley.

In ninth grade, Zwally did an experiment that looked at how the thickness of sea ice may insulate it from warmer ocean waters. The experiment won a grand prize in physical sciences at the Baltimore Science Fair, as well as other prizes. Zwally said he took a break from science fairs in 10th grade because he wanted to play lacrosse and train for another passion: ski racing.

But he jumped back into an independent research project in his junior year, taking a course that allowed him to get support from teachers and using his prize money from other fairs to buy materials to construct the experiment in the attic.

He jokes that in his Narnia, he can sit in a small room outside of the cube where he collects his data, "cut off from the outside world." He has written a 28-page research paper and hopes someday that it will be reviewed by scientists in the field.

In the fall, Zwally will attend Carnegie Mellon University, where he wants to study computer science and biology.

For Zwally, science is cool, but Brown said a cultural shift needs to take place so that being a science geek is seen as positive.

"When you ask our students what they want to be … I don't know that they ever want to be a scientist," Brown said. "They want to be the people they see in the media, and those are never the scientists."

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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