The Future of Science Education

Yesterday in Washington, DC, NCTL released its latest study at an event held at Change the Equation, a one-year-old organization dedicated to “creat[ing] widespread literacy in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) as an investment in our nation that empowers us all."  We could think of no better place to promote the findings from our study, Strengthening Science Education: The Power of More Time to Deepen Inquiry and Engagement, for Change the Equation represents the forefront of new thinking about what it will take to boost STEM education, and, without a doubt, it will take expanded time.  We were also pleased that Education Week science education reporter, Erik Robelen, took note of the same theme in his own blog.

Before I explain why expanded time is so essential, consider the state of science education in America today. Not only have science proficiency rates held flat over the last decade, but these rates are alarmingly low.  Only one-third of fourth graders and a mere one-fifth of high school seniors scored proficient on the most recent NAEP test. Meanwhile, time for science has declined. According to one survey, elementary schools devote an average of 75 minutes less per week to science than they did in the days before NCLB. How can we ever hope to achieve greatness in science in the face of these facts?

And, yet, there is reason to be encouraged about the future of STEM education in this country. One of the most promising efforts taking place is the development of new K-12 science standards. Paralleling the creation of Common Core standards in reading and math—the multi-organization, multi-state initiative to implement robust college- and career-ready standards in our nation’s classrooms—the development of science standards is, in no small part, intended to transform the teaching and learning that takes place in America.  (These new science standards are slated to be ready for state approval by late 2012.)  What makes these standards so distinctive is their wholly new approach to science education, for no longer do they focus primarily on content, but instead on communicating content through developing scientific practices; students will learn science by doing science.

Certainly, to make this wholesale shift will require that teachers are well-trained in leading inquiry-based, hands-on activities, not to mention that our schools need a substantial collection of strong curricula to bring the standards alive. But this new approach to science will also require more time.  If I do say so myself, I think our report makes a pretty good case why:

In American schools today, especially in schools that serve large percentages of disadvantaged children, … schools tend to dedicate only limited class periods for science, and the types of activities and learning that take place in them are similarly truncated. Collaboration among students—an essential ingredient of scientific practice—is unusual given the time-consuming mechanics of organizing student groups and skillfully facilitating deep, student-led discussions. There is also insufficient opportunity in more traditional science classrooms for students to engage fully in the process of trial and error, or to observe and examine natural phenomena, because complicated experiments cannot be conducted in brief spurts. Instead, classes tend to take shape as lectures, with teachers imparting information and students dutifully recording it. While this method might use limited time efficiently, such one-way, single-track teaching deprives students of the chance to experience science in action.

We did not pull this idea about needing more time from thin air. In the five schools we studied, we heard over and over from teachers, principals and science coaches that more time was a sine qua non of quality science education.

I must confess that when we heard this at the five case study schools, I wondered a bit, “Are these teachers saying this about time just because they are pioneers at expanded-time schools? What do ‘regular’ science teachers think?” Luckily, I got my answer yesterday. At the release event, Dr. Francis Q. Eberle, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), the world's largest professional organization representing science educators of all grade levels, stood up and declared matter-of-factly, “We all know we need more time to do science well.” Game, set, match.