New N.A.S. President Discusses Science Literacy in Schools
Bruce M. Alberts, an internationally known biochemist at the University of California at San Francisco and an advocate for science-education reform, will assume the presidency of the National Academy of Sciences in July.
In his new capacity, Mr. Alberts is expected to apply the lessons he has learned from the City Science program, a five-year-old partnership between university scientists and the San Francisco Unified School District that has recently shifted its focus to improving the science literacy of elementary school teachers.
Mr. Alberts also proposes establishing a network of regional coalitions of reform-minded scientists and classroom teachers linked through the academy. One function of such groups would be to provide teachers with lists of exemplary curriculum materials that would bear the academy's "seal of approval.''
He discussed his plans with Staff Writer Peter West.
Can you describe how City Science developed and how its focus on elementary school science evolved?
It was a gradual process. We started with just wanting to help out in some way with public science education.
So we started out with just trying to help the teachers, with the idea that it would be useless for anything but high school, and possibly junior high school, science, because the kind of science we knew was most relevant to the kind of things that they would be teaching at those levels.
[We] didn't do anything in elementary education for something like four years.
I first became aware of the opportunities [at the elementary level] from a program run by Paul Saltman at the University of California at San Diego.
From that came the idea of sending in a grant to the National Science Foundation.
Officials in San Francisco have indicated that, despite the success of City Science, you have been frustrated by the public school bureaucracy. Is that so?
All of these systems are set up, as far as I can see, to protect themselves from outside influences, ... because they're expecting mostly outside influences that are harmful. But somehow, being set up in that way doesn't lead to very inspiring kinds of leadership. ...
But I think [City Science] has been very successful. And I think in the long run, it's going to make a major difference in the way elementary science is taught in San Francisco.
I think the major obstacle that we face now is simply the fact that the teachers are badly overworked and overburdened and they're always being told to do new things.
Our experience has been, to help teachers to teach hands-on science effectively really takes quite a while.
The whole nature of the teaching is different. ... [It's] to teach the children a process that will get [them] used to solving problems on their own.
As the academy's president, you hope to spend 30 percent of your time on education reform. What types of efforts do you hope to undertake?
One is to make [national] leaders, such as the Secretary of Education and the Secretary of Labor, aware of what I think is tremendous opportunity, particularly in elementary science education, because those kids, once they move through the system will have a completely different attitude about science.
I think we could fix a lot of the rest of science education by [insuring] that the kids have a really good K-5 program.
And to make them aware of the fact that resources can make a difference, both financial and people resources.
Certainly in San Francisco the only way we could do many of these things is to have the resources, thanks to the National Science Foundation, so that we could do things for teachers that they enjoyed and we could provide materials that the district otherwise couldn't provide.
Could you explain the role of the national science-education standards the academy is helping to develop and the role of the regional groups in advancing reform?
The standards will certainly express the importance of the kind of inquiry-based, experimental science for young children that I've been talking about.
The regional groups--and I think of these as being two-thirds teachers and one-third scientists--could compile a whole list [of materials] ... that the academy has validated as outstanding.
I know from my experience locally ... that when teachers are looking for things to do, ... they're very hard to find, and they don't have the resources to find them.
A second function ... would be to act in some semi-official capacity ... to do something about systemic change in their own neighborhoods.