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Published in Print: April 30, 2008, as The Ultimate Reality Show

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The Ultimate Reality Show

Putting the Excitement Back Into Science

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Kids love science. I know this because I walk the halls of the American Museum of Natural History every day, and I see young people who are excited to learn about the world around them. I’ve watched primary school children gape at the big blue whale, catch their first glimpse of a T. rex, compare themselves to skeletons of our ancestors, marvel at the cosmos—and wonder at their place in it.

But something happens to these budding scientists along the way, and most of them turn away from science by their middle school or early high school years. When today’s young people were asked in a recent survey to name a role model, half chose either an entertainer or an athlete. Parents, as role models, came in third. In fact, it turns out that fully 44 percent of the American young people surveyed could not name a single scientist they might consider a role model.

This is a contemporary crisis that has long-term implications, because both our nation and our planet are confronting challenges that can only be solved by trained scientists working with the broad support of a science-literate public. The problems of global warming, environmental degradation, species extinction, pandemic diseases, sustainable energy, and the rebuilding of the American infrastructure will all require a new generation of scientists and engineers. And the Internet-based global economy will increasingly reward entrepreneurs who are scientifically and technologically knowledgeable.

Yet even in the face of these challenges, our nation is lagging further and further behind. U.S. students typically score below the midpoint on comparative international measures of science achievement in grades K-12, and only 15 percent of U.S. college students end up majoring in either the natural sciences or engineering. By comparison, fully 50 percent of China’s university students graduate with degrees in engineering and the sciences.

We must do better, and we can. For starters, we need to rally the key stakeholders on this issue and coordinate their efforts. Here are several suggestions:

Government, at all levels, must make science education an urgent priority, and commit the financial resources needed for a sustained and coordinated effort to boost science literacy and science education.

K-12 teachers should be empowered to adopt hands-on, inquiry-based teaching methods that present science as a thrilling detective story, rather than a collection of facts and formulas. Study after study has shown that inspirational teachers can ignite a passion for learning. Science teachers can channel that passion, and show their students that science can provide them with the capacity to make a real difference—to be tomorrow’s cancer researchers, climate scientists, and alternative-energy experts.

Colleges and universities should advise prospective students that they will favor applicants who have done well in high school science courses, and that scholarship money will be available for students who pursue science at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Corporate America should provide leadership and a serious financial commitment to science education in order to train the workforce of tomorrow. America’s continued leadership in the global economy will depend upon it.

And there is an important role for the so-called “informal” education sector: science museums, natural history museums, zoos, botanical gardens, and planetariums. These institutions bring science to life by providing exciting opportunities to see, hear, smell, touch, and feel science, in one-of-a-kind environments beyond the classroom walls.

It is our responsibility to help light the spark that will turn scientific discovery into an exciting adventure for our children.

But politicians, schools, business leaders, and museums can’t do it all. We, as parents, need to realize that the commitment to science education must begin in our own homes, around our own dinner tables. It is our responsibility to help light the spark that will turn scientific discovery into an exciting adventure for our children. They may not all grow up to be astronauts or physicists, but they can at least grow up to be science lovers and science literates.

The reality is that a major push for science education won’t happen unless voters, and specifically parents, demand it. This is an election year, and the voices of millions of parents, concerned for their children’s future, need to be heard. In the 1990s, politicians discovered the “soccer mom.” This year, they need to hear from the science mom … and the science dad. Because the hard truth is that, if we fail to engage our kids in science, we will condemn them to second-class citizenship in an increasingly science-dependent and science-knowledgeable world. The jobs in the new economy will be closed to them. And the great problems of the 21st century, if they are solved at all, will be solved by others.

In a sense, science is now the ultimate reality show. As a society, we’re deciding every day whether we will thrive, or even survive. Given these challenges, it’s clear that we need to view science as a life issue, and not just another hour in the K-12 school day.

Today’s world is filled with seemingly intractable problems. Science education isn’t one of them. This is a problem we can solve, if we have the will and the determination. And it’s one we must solve, for the sake of our children and their future.

As the kids would say, it isn’t rocket science. Except, of course, when it is.

Vol. 27, Issue 35, Pages 30-31

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