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Summit Calls for Overhaul of US Science Education

The disappointing performance of U.S. teenagers in math and science in recent years has sparked calls for a sweeping overhaul of science-based education in American schools. A summit on the issue, held at New York's American Museum of Natural History this week, stressed that scientific literacy of youths is essential if the United States is to stay competitive in the global economy. Victoria Cavaliere has more from VOA's New York Bureau.

In 2007, an international standardized exam found that U.S. 15-year-olds trailed their peers in many industrialized countries in both science and math. The exam, called the Program for International Student Assessment, found, in science, U.S. students lagged behind their counterparts in 16 out of 30 countries. In math, U.S. students trailed in 23 countries.

A group of scientists, lawmakers and business leaders met at the museum Tuesday to discuss ways to revamp U.S. science education. They say failure to improve basic science and math skills risks leaving the United Sates at a disadvantage in confronting challenges such as climate change, security, and human health advancements.

Dr. Joyce Leavitt Winterton is the assistant administrator for education at the U.S. Space Agency, NASA. She says U.S. students cannot afford to be average in math and science when competing in a global environment.

"We have to have a sense of urgency just beyond talk, and we need to show results," said Joyce Leavitt Winterton. "Because it is our students that will take us there, but we need to show them the support."

The panel agreed on two key points. First, that the U.S. government and business community must put more money into science education and research and development. The experts also say students are more apt to learn when using a hands-on approach.

Nicholas Negroponte is an internationally recognized computer scientist and founder of a non-profit group called One Laptop Per Child. His group has designed a $100 educational laptop that it has sent to hundreds of thousands of children worldwide. Negroponte says the program gets students more deeply involved in the process of exploration and experimentation.

"You learn French by going to France," said Nicholas Negroponte. "There is not a five-year-old on this planet who will not learn Spanish by going to Spain. The same happens for science. There can be a place called "math-land" that you go to where you learn math, and you learn it by playing with it and dealing with it."

The panel says accelerating science education would mean dealing with deficiencies in the current system, including the skill-set of teachers. The panel recommended that math or science teachers should be required to have a degree in the subject they teach. They should also be paid more in their profession.

The former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Republican Newt Gingrich, says U.S. students need to be working harder both in school and out.

"We would be far better off to have 13, 14, 15-year old kids working after school as junior scientists learning how to do things than have them hanging around the street corner or watching MTV," said Gingrich.

Last year, President Bush signed a bill called the "America Competes Act" which seeks to increase research investment and strengthen educational opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.