From biology to ecology to medicine, the biosciences are recognized globally as dynamic drivers of modern economic progress. For young college graduates, majoring in one of the biosciences can open a whole host of career possibilities. But a new study finds that many schools across the United States are not doing enough to motivate or prepare students to pursue bioscience studies in college. The study's authors suggest some ways that American educators can turn things around.
The first ever state by state analysis of U.S. bioscience education found a wide disparity among the nation's schools. Paul Hanle is president of the Biotechnology Institute, which co-sponsored the study.
"Some are doing reasonably well and many are doing not well in preparing students in bioscience for taking courses in college," he says, "which was one of the key indicators that we used."
Which states are doing well - and which are not succeeding
Schools in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey, he says, are among those doing, "reasonably well" at incorporating the biosciences into state science standards, supporting advanced courses and ensuring science teachers are well-qualified. Arkansas, Florida and Texas schools, on the other hand, are lagging behind in giving their students a solid science foundation.
"If you look at all of the states, more than 43 percent of the students went through the biology course in high school," he explains. "We're talking significantly less than half are ready for college. We also noticed in the course of these statistics that the United States is performing 25th out of 30 developed countries in science education, according to the standardized international tests," Hanle says.
What that means, he says, is that many young people are missing out on career opportunities in some of the fastest-growing job markets in the economy.
"Biosciences jobs command, on average, a salary of about $71,000 a year," he says. "It's a striking number, almost twice the average wage in the United States. In the pharmaceutical arena and in health sciences, [it's] somewhat higher. So these are well-paying jobs. This is a full range that goes from research scientists and managers and executives at the higher end; [to] technicians, quality-control officers and a range of positions that [one can be] qualified for by a two year college, and some by high school career technical education programs."
Increasing the numbers of qualified graduates in bioscience majors, Hanle adds, would also help the economy grow.
"We have a bad economy right now, which is [recovering] now," he says. "I think that [one] of the drivers is the bioscience industry, which is helping to build new enterprises and fill new jobs."
One of the Institute's goals is to get young people engaged and excited about biotechnology. Hanle says the focus is on offering special programs for teachers at middle and high schools because that's when the students start to lose interest in studying science.
"Science is a fantastic field," California high school teacher Ericka Senegar Mitchell says. "There is nothing like science to touch every aspect of the human condition. There is a scientific principal application that's responsible for it."
Senegar-Mitchell joined the Biotechnology Institute's Teacher-Leader Program, an annual workshop that provides teachers with the skills, strategies and knowledge to raise awareness of biotechnology in their home communities.
"We were able to go through and tour labs, facilities and companies," she explains. "We were taught fantastic curriculum and we were given the chance to go back to our schools and communities and share this with our professionals and students."
Teaching bioscience, rap music style
Senegar-Mitchell has her own style of teaching bioscience to her students.
"I just choose to do it in a way that's engaging for them, something they enjoy," she says. "So instead of maybe doing a lecture on a scientific principle, we may learn a science song about it, or a rap or perform a dance that sort of uses our body to explain a scientific phenomenon. It's definitely different. And it's something that I've seen my students enjoy, add the focus to it. I never sacrifice the content of the employable lab skills for the fun. I just really know how to make it a perfect marriage between the two," she says.
That approach earned Senegar-Mitchell this year's Genzyme-Life Technologies', "Biotech Educator Award." The award was established by the Biotechnology Institute to honor high-school educators who are bringing biotechnology to their classrooms and encouraging fellow science teachers to do the same.
The future of teaching biosciences in American schools
Senegar-Mitchell says she has her own reasons to feel optimistic about the future of bioscience education in American schools.
"I witness everyday that the creativity and the innovative thoughts that once made the U.S. a front runner in science and math and engineering, it's still there," she says. "The students are still as curious, they are just as creative. It's just we've lost our focus. And so there is a need to be refocusing on the area of science, making it accessible to a wider rage and a more diverse group of students, not just young men, but also young women."
Paul Hanle, says he hopes to see bioscience education become a priority in American schools. By developing teachers' skills and providing schools with the needed resources, he believes more students will be inspired to become America's future scientists.