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Improvements Needed in Science Education, say Experts

American universities are arguably the best in the world. But in our elementary and secondary schools, experts, educators, politicians and parents all agree that there are deep flaws in the system. And in recent years the focus has been on mathematics and reading as benchmarks of both individual and school success. But other areas -- art and music, foreign languages, the sciences -- have been getting less attention.

The downplaying of school science programs worries a lot of scientists and educators. They say it's important to provide a good quality, engaging science education to youngsters to prepare some of them for university science programs. But even for those who will pursue other careers, there is value to science education, says Bruce Alberts, a former president of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Science education for everyone is really enormously important," says Alberts, "and we've trivialized it so that it isn't important the way we teach it. But it should be. We need to enable all children to acquire the problem-solving, thinking and communication skills of scientists if they're going to be productive and we're going to remain the leading nation, competitive in industry and business."

Speaking at a recent Capitol Hill briefing organized by the Congressional Biomedical Research Caucus, Alberts criticized what he called "science education as mentioning" - singling out textbooks that introduce young students to often-complex ideas without giving them any real understanding.

"It's really no different from what the kids are doing in madrassas in Afghanistan. As you know, many of them are memorizing the Koran in a language they don't understand. And we're having them memorize science in a language they don't understand."

Kids don't start out bored by science. In fact, even very young children can be captivated when science is presented right. Judy Wurtzel, now at the Aspen Institute and formerly a senior advisor in the U.S. Department of Education, uses the example of her nine-year-old daughter.

"What's really turned her on about school this year is science because it's hands-on, they do some things in depth.," she said. "They only cover three topics in fourth grade, so they get to spend a lot of time on them. And she's actually learning something about the science. And to be, I think, thinking about how we're changing high school science makes me optimistic that she can stay excited about science over the long term, because we know that so many of these students start tuning out, particularly when they hit high school and biology consists of learning a lot of terms, a lot of memorization, and dissecting an earthworm. There's got to be more to science than that."

It sounds like a no-brainer, but maybe the best way to figure out how to teach science is to use scientific methods. Bruce Alberts, who is now a biochemistry professor at the University of California - San Francisco -- a scientist and teacher, and a textbook author -- says there are ways of determining what methods of science education are most successful.

"To make a system that will really work, we need to have knowledge of what works, so we need research that really is applied to school needs and relevant to classrooms in America," he said. "And finally we need - because it's too complicated, you know all this is too complicated to just do from top down with pronouncements - we need a continual adjustment system everywhere, which comes from teachers telling you, the best teachers telling you what's happening, what can we fix. No wonder we can't do education. We don't have that feedback mechanism."

Along those lines, the National Science Foundation on May 2 announced a grant to the non-profit College Board to redesign some of the leading science courses in American high schools. The so-called Advanced Placement classes attract the best students, who can often get university credit for their AP courses. Often, it's a high school's best educators who teach the AP classes.

The grant follows a 2002 report from the U.S. National Research Council, "Learning and Understanding,", which criticized advanced high school science and math courses.

Despite that critical report, and whatever comes out of the redesign of the AP courses, high school teacher Dave Ely of Hinesburg, Vermont, admits it will be tough to get teachers to adopt new ways of teaching.

"You're apt to teach in the way that you were taught to [teach]," Ely said. "And so it's going to take a lot of effort to change. A lot of AP teachers are very successful doing what they do, which is, you know, the 'sage on the stage.' Let the teachers- let the teachers learn with the students in a very different kind of way. And it has to come to that if we want to change science."

The National Science Foundation grant is to produce new outlines for teaching AP courses in chemistry, physics, biology and environmental sciences by the end of next year.