Science Education and Society

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

In a recent speech, President Barack Obama referred to our country as currently facing a “Sputnik moment.” He called for more innovation in education and more emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – a currently popular buzz word) education. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been creating competitions for better education between states and between school districts. One of the emphases he’s put into these is science education.

official pictures of B. Obama and A. Duncan

What does all of this whoopla really mean? What are the real stakes? Why should the average citizen care? Start with education in general and understand its import.

Education is the soul of a society.

I put that single sentence in a paragraph alone because it’s so important. Today’s citizens function as they do and contribute what they do to our society due to the education they’ve received. I don’t merely mean their formal education but all educational experiences including at home, in religious establishments, on television, in magazines, and, in modern times, from the Internet. Over millenia, education has been the responsibility of the elders toward the new generations. While other species may train their young, we have the unique ability to build upon the knowledge passed on to us. With the invention of writing, that ability multiplied manyfold.

Although it may not be very evident because of the relatively conservative nature of the educational establishment, education can slowly turn society onto different paths. Finland stands as a strong example of how a commitment to improving education, especially science education, changed a society so that it is rapidly becoming a powerhouse of technology. Education matters.

As a democracy, education counts even more. Jefferson said, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Consider the contrapositive, which says effectively that you cannot trust people with their own government when they are ill-informed.

Franklin Roosevelt said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

The spirit of these remarks appears repeatedly in our history. But what is meant by education in this context? By my interpretation, education in a democracy must include information about how a democracy works and the role of its citizens. It must also teach people to think, to be able to distinguish between propaganda and information.

In my opinion, this knowledge and these skills should come out of our social studies and science classes. Yet, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation focused on the other two core subjects of mathematics and literacy. While numeracy and literacy are important precursors to acquiring additional knowledge, students should begin to learn the others as soon as they have enough skills to do so. The appropriate study of social studies and science best prepares our young to be full citizens in a democracy. For this reason, NCLB has it exactly backward, especially past the primary grades.

This sort of education is not just a right of all our children. It’s a necessity for securing our future as a democracy. Leaving any child out is a crime against our society. Yet, that’s exactly what’s happening today. I have visited classrooms across the nation. Within New York City, for example, the differences between different schools is stark and very unsettling. A student’s zip code should not determine that student’s quality of education. To compete in the world, we must have “all hands on deck.” That phrase means that we must truly leave no child behind. Our next Thomas Edison could be sitting in an underserved classroom today and never have the chance to demonstrate that world-changing ability. Even those who may not be recognized as great can make great contributions if just allowed the opportunity.

We must make every child smart. We can. It’s simply a matter of putting our nation’s future before that extra bottle of beer, that extra feature on our new TV, that vacation in Bermuda instead of in our own national and state parks. A modest sacrifice today can make a huge difference tomorrow.

Higher wages for K-12 teachers will mean that we can attract the best, just as Finland does. It’s not about today’s teachers; it’s about tomorrow’s graduates. What’s wrong with national standards as guidelines so that we’re all reading from the same page? Why shouldn’t our school adminstrators be required to be technology literate so that they can tell the difference between technology baloney and real solutions to learning problems?

In the end, it’s still the teacher who makes all the difference. Our best teachers challenge students to do their best. They engage them in thinking and in activities that stretch their imaginations. They make our future possible as a society.

8 Responses

  1. Lots of people have forgotten about science as citizens. I love this post. Recently in Washington DC there was a Science Expo. Then there was a forum at the NAS National Academy of Science on informal learning of science, and then a convention on Science for the Public that was a pre-conference event..

    I particularly liked the AAAS Family Science days
    children and parents spilled into the convention center for experiences with lots of different kinds of science. It was an amazing event.

    Science in elementary schools has been shoved out of the door, or was by NCLB. The problem is that it is not tested, not that we want to add more to the kind of testing that people are doing. I think you would have to work in a school to get the drift of how important the testing is to the life of the school.
    But I digress.
    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  2. I was a young boy when my father took us all out into the back yard to see something remarkable: one of the stars was moving across the night sky. Little did I know how that moving star would change my life.

    Suddenly science was everywhere, and not many years after that I found myself immersed in it. Although I was later to leave that pursuit due to circumstances that had nothing to do with science itself, our “sputnik generation” shows me today what can happen when we give something its proper emphasis.

  3. John, I remember how, in Hawaii, many of the ratty public high school campuses with termite-eaten wooden buildings suddenly got a brand new science building with sophisticated (for the late-’50s and ’60s) equipment as well as real science and physics teachers who were very sharp. These resources looked totally out of place, but they worked! And this is what the Sputnik scare did for the Islands and, I’m sure, the rest of the country, too.

    Funny how we don’t act until there’s a national emergency ignited by a formidable enemy. Perhaps a threat of the red scare magnitude is what we need to wake us up.

    I guess a good question might be: Will hundreds of billions of dollars poured into our nation’s public schools make a difference? As Americans, we can’t help but feel that money is the answer to any problem. The more we throw at it, the sooner we solve it. It seems to make sense.

    But sometimes I wonder if we’re past the point where unlimited dollars spent on our current model of schooling would have an impact. Could it be that it’s not so much the lack of money but the form of our schools that’s the problem? -Jim S

  4. Science.. I went to school eight years and remember only that they did the water cycle in my parochial school. I guess religion was more important.

    The fact that I never had quality science until college
    and the exciting ways that NASA , National Geographic and the Federation of American Scientist resources
    propelled me into a science lover. At the time most teaches in my school did not want to be bothered.

    Most influential was the National Geographic Institute in which I learned the synergy of the sciences..

    I loved my Earthwatch experience too. there is funding for a wonderful experience with a real science project in the field. , Sponsored.


  5. Sorry for the spelling error, typing too fast. I need to add a virtual experience too

    I like games. Here is one on power.

    I started in games when they were first introduced. MECC and when we ourselves programmed and built our technology lessons. That was a long time ago in the life of an educator.

  6. WE can ill afford to cut our science programs. In fact we should start them in preschool and instill in the minds of all learners a thirst for imagination and wonder that comes from asking Why?

  7. […] By Harry Keller Editor, Science Education In a recent speech, President Barack Obama referred to our country as currently facing a “Sputnik moment.” He called for more innovation in education and m…  […]

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