On 'Alliances' And Science Education

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American corporations--along with universities, science museums, and even the military--have sharply increased their involvement in the improvement of science and mathematics education in public schools. Grassroots "alliances" linking these institutions to the schools are now found in virtually every large community, and their number is growing rapidly. In science alone, about 500 sizable alliances, or "partnerships," have been identified--a few of them statewide.

Promising benefits for both students and teachers, these programs can help the nation reach its goals for science education. But to fully realize the alliances' potential, local partners and state and national policymakers must cooperate in defining needs and attuning initiatives.

Examples of partnerships are numerous and varied. IBM conducts a "loan" program whereby its scientists can work in public schools, then return to the company after a year or two without having missed promotion opportunities. The corporation also offers an early-retirement plan providing financial assistance for those who wish to enter teaching. The Southwest Research Institute, a contract research firm in San Antonio, encourages its employees to establish partnerships with individual teachers. In some instances, the teachers work at S.W.R.I. during the summer. Scientists collaborate with teachers on curriculum development and often visit school to work with students. Students visit the corporate scientists' laboratories.

Yale University encourages its faculty to work with groups of teachers in New Haven. Teachers participate in seminars led by professors on topics the teachers help select; they then develop teaching units in consultation with the professors.

A statewide alliance in Colorado is based at the University of Colorado at Boulder, with local headquarters at each of 10 campuses throughout the state. Policy is formulated by councils of representatives from elementary and secondary schools, rural areas, business and industry, higher education, and government agencies.

Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, a science museum, annually opens its doors on a Friday evening to admit about 600 school administrators and teachers. They explore exhibits and share ideas about teaching, and even "camp in" with cots and sleeping bags.

Students gain from these alliances as they see more clearly the ways in which the scientific concepts they study in school are used in manufacturing, research, commerce, and service industries. When they recognize that classroom activity bears a direct relationship to the adult world, young people often become more motivated. In addition, through contacts with industry, they learn about jobs that have a technical component--both those requiring only a high-school diploma and those demanding further formal education.

Teachers also benefit from such programs in several ways. Often, for example, they find new colleagues through the partnerships. Teaching can be a lonely occupation; professional conversations with adults are rare. Local alliances create settings where teachers can exchange ideas with scientists. In the process, teachers are updated about their subjects--and the academic and corporate scientists begin to understand better the problems that teachers face. And as a result of this new appreciation, the scientists sometimes become a political force for improvement.

The most distinctive feature of these partnerships, viewed in the context of the current emphasis on national goals in education policy, is that they are all locally conceived and finely tuned to community capability. They capitalize on the interests and energies of people who know the district, care about it personally because they live there, and are positioned to make a difference. As no other education initiative, the alliances suggest the degree to which educational improvement is everybody's responsibility.

But despite their merits, there are several causes for concern about the future of these efforts.

First, though alliances are ubiquitous, each one is fragile. To a pronounced degree, collaborative work to improve science education is voluntary--on everyone's part. It therefore runs the risk of being categorized as "public service" for those outside the school system, akin in some ways to charity. Partnerships depend on a hospitable climate, social conscience, and private dedication--not always a recipe for a stable, ongoing program of activities.

Even if the setting is right with respect to the organizations involved, a private sense of social responsibility among large numbers of people who do not bear primary responsibility for the education of children is a thin reed on which to hang a program. At the moment, education is prominent among national priorities; perhaps it will remain so for a long time. But such heavy dependence on volunteers may present problems in the future.

Second, it isn't always clear that local energies are directed toward a defensible vision of science education. The great advantage of alliances is that they can be timely and give the participants a sense of relevance and excitement. In many instances, however, the resulting activities are at the margins of the basic program in science.

While the partnerships' efforts often inspire the students, rarely are they designed either to reinforce the schools' established curriculum or to offer a worthy departure from it. Frequently, they are add-on and isolated projects, with their own life and momentum--a bit like showing an educational film with no preparation or follow-through.

Third, the policy climate in education is not particularly warm to initiatives fostering local variations. Bill Honig, California's superintendent of public instruction, puts his finger on a dilemma when he voices his reservations about the work of local alliances: "Keep the beauty of the local initiatives. But we must have some sense of where the state is [with respect to science]. ... Where are we strong? Where are we weak? We need enough definition of what the real [science-education] needs of the schools are--and a general philosophy."

State policymakers and school officers must think not simply about one school or community, but many. Pockets of initiative and imagination may be fine, but public policies are usually directed toward improvement of the entire system. And there's the rub. Time and again, existing patterns of state-level policymaking--with their emphasis on standardization, compulsion, and regulation--militate against local variation, whether it be helpful or harmful. And though prescription and regulation may help ensure against unsound practice, they are not likely to motivate the most gifted people in a school or in a community.

The challenge in improving science education is to avoid the extremes of top-down curriculum pronouncements, on the one hand, and unmonitored grassroots and opportunistic strategies on the other. The ideal is to provide guidance that has been worked out collaboratively at state and national levels, and is then developed according to local skills, interests, and opportunities. If they are to teach well, teachers must have the latitude to tailor the general goals of science education to the specific circumstances of their classrooms. At the same time, however, they will profit from a clear idea of where the state and nation are trying to go.

The task is tricky, and leadership is needed to strike the right balance. A sense of direction was provided in the 1960's by the National Science Foundation. This federal agency still has the capability--and almost all the money--for research and development in science education below the collegiate level. It can again take the lead, and it is showing signs of doing so--with the benefit of important lessons learned the last time around about the limits of improvement when state and local strengths and sensibilities are not taken seriously.

Professional associations can also play a role. "Project 2061," sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, identifies key science concepts for emphasis in education; its broad-based membership could be mobilized to work constructively with schools. And there are fresh initiatives in other organizations of scientists, such as Sigma Xi. This honorary research society is encouraging its far-flung local chapters to get more systematic about improving education.

Scientifically oriented corporations, universities, and museums have demonstrated that they can collaborate with public schools to bolster science education. But they need a public-policy perspective that will make the most of their interests; they must have scope for their creativity and energy. This goal has not been emphasized as the President and the governors have increased their commitment to improving science education. Government has plenty of experience with trying to remedy weakness when planning education initiatives; that's its usual approach. Whether policies can be devised that build on local strengths at the same time remains to be seen.

Vol. 09, Issue 29, Page 36

Published in Print: April 11, 1990, as On 'Alliances' And Science Education
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