Science Opinion

Getting a Clue

By Ray Ann D. Havasy — November 07, 2001 4 min read
It's time for educators, administrators, and business leaders to start a revolution in science teaching and learning.

When Daniel Goldin announced last month that he was stepping down after a decade heading the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the news recalled a dire assessment he once made. The respected NASA administrator had pronounced himself “scared to death” by one development in his field. Was it the possibility of another Challenger-like disaster? The threat of cuts in NASA’s budget? The potential for astronaut-cosmonaut conflict on the international space station? No, it was none of these. What had Mr. Goldin shaking in his boots, he said, was simply this: Kids don’t like science.

Mr. Goldin and other leaders in our technology-driven economy are looking into the future, and what they don’t see scares them. The future will likely lack an adequate supply of scientists.

It is evident that American students are not excited about science. Our graduate programs in science and engineering are not filled with bright young Americans, but rather bright young international students. Well before graduate school, though, American students’ lack of science interest and expertise is evidenced by routine lackluster performances on international assessments. What is America to do?

In some ways, the answer is embarrassingly simple: To increase science learning, give students a reason to want to learn science.

Science educators must help students make the connections between science and the world in which they live.

If adults were honest, most would have to admit that they still do not understand why they had to memorize the genus and species of various farm animals. Or why they were made to draw pictures of DNA. Or what wasthe point of that fruit-fly film they were forced to watch in the 10th grade? For many adults, science education is synonymous with passive learning and memorization. It is no wonder that most adults have forgotten nearly all they ever learned in science class; they never understood what any of it had to do with “real life.”

We don’t just need more science education in this country; we need a revolution in the way we teach science. Our goal for science education should be to teach sound science that will “stick.” Specifically, science educators must help students make the connections between science and the world in which they live—science for real life.

Inquiry-based learning takes the students from the audience and places them in a starring role in the science classroom. The best inquiry-based learning guides a student’s natural curiosity through a process of investigation and discovery while making science relevant to students.

The power of this kind of learning was evident at last year’s Discovery Young Scientist Challenge. Many of the student finalists in this national middle school competition talked about how their interest in science grew out of something in their “real lives.” One student’s love of horses led her to design an experiment to discover a better method for estimating her horse’s weight. Another student’s partial hearing loss led her to investigate the structure of the human ear to discover if the role that ossicular bones play in hearing can be simulated by other means. Last year’s winner became interested in genetics after witnessing her own mother’s struggle with a genetic eye disease. When science is practical, science is memorable and dynamic.

This can be seen clearly in the new “Dino Stars” exhibit at the New York Institute of Technology’s Center for Science Teaching and Learning, which I direct. What makes the exhibition so exciting is that students are not just visitors, they are critical participants in making the exhibits work. The inquiry-based design allows the questions generated by students to shape their experience of the exhibits. While we are excited about the potential for this museum, we know that inquiry-based learning must ultimately find its way to the classroom to make large-scale changes in science achievement in the United States.

So why isn’t this kind of science thriving in our schools? Many educators hesitate to change the way we conduct science education in this country. What we hear most frequently is the following: We’re willing to use new methods to engage our students in science, but we still have to ensure that they take and pass their standardized tests. ... How can we possibly do both?

The assumption that inquiry teaching does not prepare children for tests is flawed.

While the concern that many teachers feel to prepare their students for their required examinations is very real, the underlying assumption that inquiry teaching does not prepare children for tests is flawed. The truth is, the same information that is taught through traditional methods can be taught—often more effectively—through inquiry-based learning.

Changing from the old way of doing things to a new way isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. Teachers must be given the resources they need to learn and implement inquiry- based learning strategies. Those who train teachers (colleges) and those who employ teachers (school districts) must recognize the need for change and begin training—and retraining—teachers in inquiry-based teaching techniques and teach them how to immediately integrate these techniques into their classrooms. Business leaders, who complain about the lack of workers with high-level critical-thinking skills, must partner with schools and colleges to help with the effort. There are many examples of successful partnerships. Companies have given colleges of education access to their distance-learning technologies to facilitate professional development opportunities for teachers, for example. These models need to expand and increase to reach more teachers.

American students can lead the world in science excellence. But it won’t happen until we make serious changes in the way that we teach science. It’s time for educators, administrators, and business leaders to start a revolution in science teaching and learning.

Ray Ann D. Havasy is the director of the Center for Science Teaching and Learning at New York Institute of Technology’s school of education and a senior consultant to the Discovery Young Scientists Challenge.

A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2001 edition of Education Week as Getting a Clue


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to Advance Educational Equity
Schools are welcoming students back into buildings for full-time in-person instruction in a few short weeks and now is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and systems to build
Content provided by PowerMyLearning
Classroom Technology Webinar Making Big Technology Decisions: Advice for District Leaders, Principals, and Teachers
Educators at all levels make decisions that can have a huge impact on students. That’s especially true when it comes to the use of technology, which was activated like never before to help students learn
Professional Development Webinar Expand Digital Learning by Expanding Teacher Training
This discussion will examine how things have changed and offer guidance on smart, cost-effective ways to expand digital learning efforts and train teachers to maximize the use of new technologies for learning.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Science Opinion The Three Most Effective Instructional Strategies for Science—According to Teachers
Three science educators share their favorite instructional strategies, including incorporating a sense of play in their classes.
9 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
Science Make Science Education Better, More Equitable, Says National Panel
States must take steps to ensure that all students get a fair shot at learning science, says the National Academies of Science report.
3 min read
Illustration of father and child working on computer.
Science Q&A Many Schools Don't Teach About the Science of Vaccines. Here's Why They Should
Schools play an important role in confronting misinformation and mistrust in vaccines by helping students understand how they work.
7 min read
Ainslee Bolejack, freshman at Shawnee Heights High School in Tecumseh, Kansas, prepares to receive her first COVID-19 vaccine on May 17, 2021, at Topeka High. Unified School District 501 held a clinic at all their high schools welcoming students now 12-years-old and up to receive their vaccination.
Freshman Ainslee Bolejack prepares to receive her first COVID-19 vaccine on May 17, 2021, at Topeka High School in Kansas. Unified School District 501 held a clinic at all its high schools for students 12 and older to receive their vaccinations.
Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal via AP
Science Letter to the Editor Science-Score Declines Have Impact Well Beyond the Classroom
Science understanding is valuable not only for careers in STEM but also for students' critical thinking and analytical skills.
1 min read