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Fostering a ‘Science Generation’ Seen as U.S. Imperative

By Scott J. Cech — April 11, 2008 6 min read
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We’ve got the plan. Now we’ve just got to fund it and move forward. It’s time to stop studying this. It’s time to do something.”

Previous generations of Americans have been labeled Generation X, the Greatest Generation, and the Lost Generation, but if the young people of today want to succeed amid the souped-up competition of the global economy, they had better become the Science Generation.

Or so said a high-profile lineup of speakers at “Science Generation: A National Imperative,” a gathering held here last week at the American Museum of Natural History.

“My daughter and your children will ... in all likelihood inherit a lower standard of living,” unless U.S. students acquire greater passion for science, said U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, the Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Science and Technology. “We have to have the kind of technical workforce that can compete, and we simply don’t have that now.”

It was the latest in a long line of convocations—most of which have been long on education policy wonks and business leaders—focused on the need for better education in the so-called STEM fields: science, technology, engineering, and math.

Branching Out

But it was through the breadth of fields represented that its organizers aimed to set this conference apart from the swarm of other STEM-oriented gatherings over the past few years. Speakers included an investment banker, a paleontologist, and a group of local public school students, to name a few.

“The idea was to broaden the conversation to a broad range of branches and fields,” said Ellen V. Futter, the president of the American Museum of Natural History, which organized and hosted the two-day event.

Science, she said, “has ramifications for all aspects of our lives.” Science and other STEM-field education has been at the forefront of national policy conversations off and on since the start of the Space Race a half-century ago, including during the time of A Nation at Risk, the landmark 1983 federal report on the shortcomings of U.S. schooling in science and other subjects that turns 25 this month.

But a series of more recent reports, including the 2005 National Academies book Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which details the slippage of American international competitiveness and a need for more science education and other investments, have sharpened interest among policymakers and educators.

A follow-up conference organized by the National Academies and the National Math and Science Initiative, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm Two Years Later: Accelerating Progress Toward a Brighter Economic Future,” is scheduled for later this month in Washington.

Funding Urged

At last week’s meeting, big ideas were not in short supply. Some participants took the opportunity to advocate favorite initiatives.

“If Congress wants to make a dent in education, I highly recommend that … every child in this country have a laptop,” said Nicholas Negroponte, a former head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Laboratory. He now leads the Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit One Laptop per Child Foundation, which aims to distribute low-cost laptop computers to children in poor countries and the United States.

Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives who participated in the event by videoconference, suggested a debate among presidential candidates solely on the subject of science.

But several participants noted that ideas alone would not suffice, and that conferences whose only outcome is a consensus that a problem exists do little to solve it.

“We don’t need more panels,” said panelist William S. Schmidt, a Michigan State University researcher.

“We’ve got the plan. Now we’ve just got to fund it and move forward,” said Rep. Gordon, referring to the federal America COMPETES Act, which incorporates proposals for more college science scholarships, new programs to train science teachers, and more research funding.

Many of the programs in the legislation, which was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Bush last year, have not been financed.

“It’s time to stop studying this,” Rep. Gordon said. “It’s time to do something.”

National Curriculum?

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One idea supported by many conference speakers was that of a national science curriculum. Former North Carolina Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., and Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools—a Washington-based organization representing many of the nation’s largest urban districts—both heartily endorsed the idea. “The laws of math and science don’t really change when they cross state lines,” Mr. Casserly noted.

“I believe national standards in science education are absolutely essential,” said Mr. Hunt, now the chairman of the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But he cautioned that such standards won’t work if they’re mandated by federal education officials, or even if federal money is used to set them up.

“The way I see this as being done is … with these state and local leaders coming together,” he said. “I think it will need to be funded privately—perhaps with corporations.”

None of the numerous corporate officers present at the conference immediately threw thousand-dollar bills on the stage at the mention of that notion. But all signed on to the idea that businesses need to do their part to get students more interested in science, if only out of self-interest.

“The private sector has got to be a major leader, because the private sector has to have people … for the jobs of the 21st century,” said Robert D. Hormats, a vice chairman at the Goldman Sachs Group Inc., the large investment bank based here. “This economy, this country is going to sink or swim together.”

Input From Children

Panelists also weighed in with other ideas.

Mr. Gingrich called on Congress to triple the budget of the National Science Foundation, a federal agency that supports a broad range of programs in mathematics and science education, calling his own failure to do so “the greatest mistake of my speakership.”

Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the director of the museum’s Hayden Planetarium, took a different tack, suggesting that NASA’s budget be tripled instead as a way of inspiring more students to become fascinated with science.

“With all due respect to the NSF, I don’t know anyone who says, ‘When I want to grow up, I want to be an NSF researcher,’ ” Mr. Tyson said. “That has never happened—ever … in K-12.”

Another idea came from Becca Robison, a 16-year-old from Layton, Utah, who has earned enough credits through an early-college program to be considered a college sophomore majoring in engineering and physics at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah.

“We should talk to the kids and see what they want to do,” said Ms. Robison, who founded AstroTots, a free science camp for girls ages 4 through 10 that is based in her hometown and operates in 10 states.

But the ideas on how best to improve science education offered by children at the conference diverged just as much as did those of the adult panelists.

In an interview following a panel discussion among students from the public World Journalism Preparatory School—a small, 2-year-old school in the Queens section of New York City serving grades 6-10—the young people were emphatic that something about their science education had to change. But they did not agree about how.

Giananthony Damasco, 15, unfavorably compared New York’s science curriculum, which he said tried to cover too much, with the more selective, more in-depth science his cousin in Italy is studying.

“If we just focused more,” Mr. Damasco suggested, more learning might get done.

Fellow student Raymond Arroyo, also 15, proposed an opposite remedy, complaining that the curriculum was too narrow. “Right now, it’s all about global warming, global warming, global warming,” he said. “I think what we need to do is be balanced.”

But, as panelists pointed out, just that kind of intellectual sparring, coupled with open-ended inquiry, is the foundation of science.

“We are gathered here not to identify the problem, but to jump-start and accelerate action to remedy the problem,” said Ms. Futter, the museum’s president. In that regard, she said, “we do think we’ve advanced the ball.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as Fostering a ‘Science Generation’ Seen as U.S. Imperative

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