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Federal Agencies Train Spotlight On Science Instruction

By Michelle Galley — March 24, 2004 3 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation last week jointly sponsored what was billed as the first-ever national science “summit” to underscore the need to improve science education in the nation’s schools.

Secretary of Education Rod Paige kicked off the meeting here by observing that “while some of our young people receive a world-class education in science, ... many others are being left behind.”

To address that problem, Mr. Paige said, better research into “what works in science education” needs to be conducted. He also announced that the Education Department was launching a public-awareness campaign to engage community and business leaders, parents, students, and educators in the task.

The one-day event was part of the larger “Excellence in Science, Technology, and Mathematics Education Week,” an initiative of the department and the NSF to bolster math and science education.

The “summit” follows a similar meeting that Education Department officials held last year to discuss mathematics education. (“Ed. Dept. Proposes $120 Million Math Agenda,” Feb. 12, 2003.)

Though focusing on science education is important, what happens after the meeting is what will really matter, said Gerald F. Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, based in Arlington, Va. “We’re concerned with the follow- through,” he said.

Flubbed Experiment

In a speech before the 750 attendees, John H. Marburger III, the director of the White House office of science and technology policy, focused on improving teachers’ preparation to teach the subject.

He told a story about a simple science experiment that his 8th grade teacher flubbed. For a unit on weather, the teacher asked the class if warm air or cold air holds more moisture. Mr. Marburger said he was the only one who answered warm air.

To stop the ensuing debate, the teacher decided to perform an experiment in which the class put one wet towel on the heater and another outside in the cold air. The towel on the heater dried out, while the one outside stayed moist, bringing the class to the false conclusion that cold air holds more moisture.

“This is what teacher education is all about,” Mr. Marburger said. “Even simple experiments require skill if they are to give accurate results.”

Professional development drew emphasis from Mr. Paige, who said in his presentation that the math- and science-partnership grant programs “help strengthen math and science curricula by involving experts ... in the education of our K-12 teachers and students.” Both the NSF and the Education Department oversee grants targeting the enhancement of math and science education.

The secretary praised President Bush for seeking an increase in the budget for the math and science partnership program.

The president, however, did not propose an overall increase in funding for the venture. Instead, he recommended moving the part of the program the NSF operates to the department. (“Math, Science Grants in Federal Cross Hairs,” Feb. 11, 2004.)

Parent Poll

The March 16 gathering also provided a forum for the release of a national survey on parents’ attitudes toward science education.

A vast majority of the parents who were polled, 94 percent, said that science education was “very important” overall.

A little more than half, 51 percent, of the 1,000 respondents said they believed that they had more science when they were in school than their children do. The survey was conducted between March 8 and March 11 by Braun Research, based in Princeton, N.J. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.1 percent.

“Parents remember dissecting frogs and Bunsen burners and think that is science,” Secretary Paige said in an interview. “Big leaps and progress made in science may have escaped them.”

He also used the occasion to pitch alternative-certification programs, which, he says, open the door for more science professionals to teach.

By changing the way teachers are certified, “we will be able to have an immediate impact” on the way science is taught, he said.

“You have to know more than Newton’s second law to teach 7th graders,” Mr. Wheeler said, “and a good alternative-certification program should address this.”

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