On any given day there is a story about science in the news and, increasingly science education. I really love stories about kids doing science or learning that math can be fun because they’re doing something real – building something, travelling, getting together with scientists and mathematicians and getting a new perspective on the world. Take today for example. Here are the first two stories featured in my morning Google science education news search:
Don’t these programs sound pretty fun? In the first you get to build robots, use computers and compete against another class that did the same things as you. In the second program you get to live on a college campus and do hands-on labs for the summer. The first program is based at a school and incorporated into the formal day; the other takes place in the summer on a university. Both are free. (FREE!) The first program is open to everyone in the class; the other is competitive based on academics. Both programs are valued in terms of the urgent shortage of engineers, scientists and mathematicians, a landscape which is increasingly coming under question for its veracity.
And herein is my dilemma. I love these stories but the more I see them ore I get frustrated. What would it take to make these kinds of experiences the norm rather than the exception? Can’t we offer a program that engages students with science and math through fun, meaningful work – that didn’t imply the purpose was to be a scientist? We don’t expect every student who takes a literature class to be a writer, though we hope that they do learn how to write and read. Why does a kid who learns science effectively have to be a potential scientist? I WANT kids to have access to jobs in science if they want them and certainly it’s much less likely a kid will consider a career in science unless they are interested in science and have the skills to do science.
But stories like the ones in today’s headlines always make me wonder – can’t we have an education system in which literacy and fluency in science was expected rather than the exception? What would it take for science to really be “for all,” rather than just some? NOT because of national competitiveness (from which flows the status quo in science education of targeting academically gifted students) but because being able to think rationally and evaluate information is a skill as necessary as reading and writing in a democratic society.
The scientist in me knows that simply educating academically elite students in the interests of the science workforce pipeline won’t increase the number of students pursuing science – this model isn’t working. Neither is a model whereby funders fund short term, one shot programs which may pique a student’s interest in science but leaves them with nowhere to go to continue that pursuit. (I think there are other ways to work on this issue, but that will be for another post).
Sustained, in- and out-of-school alliances that get students interested in science through hands-on meaningful activities alongside adults who are passionate about the world may be possible. But it will require us to make science programs like the ones described in today’s news available to all students, regardless of academic achievement, on every given day.