Teacher Preparation

Studies Suggest Science Education Neglected

By Michelle Galley — May 19, 2004 4 min read
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Nearly a third of the nation’s elementary pupils are taught science less than three times a week, at a time when high school and college students’ interest in obtaining a college degree in the natural sciences or engineering is flagging, two reports reveal.

Read “The Bayer Facts of Science Education X: Are the Nation’s Colleges and Universities Adequately Preparing Elementary Schoolteachers of Tomorrow to Teach Science?,” from The Bayer Corp. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“Science and Engineering Indicators 2004,” is available from the National Science Foundation.

In contrast, children in grades K-5 are more likely to learn mathematics and English on a daily basis than they are science, according to “The Bayer Facts of Science Education X: Are the Nation’s Colleges and Universities Adequately Preparing Elementary Schoolteachers of Tomorrow to Teach Science?”

The survey which marks the 10th year of such reports on science educationof elementary teachers and education college deans, conducted on behalf of the Philadelphia-based Bayer Corp., was released last week.

The second report is an annual study by the National Science Foundation, unveiled this month.

Effect on Students

A majority of the elementary teachers surveyed for the Bayer report said they believe that science should be given the same emphasis as English and math. Still, many acknowledged that they weren’t well-prepared in their preservice courses to teach the subject. Only 18 percent gave their training an A.

Teacher Prep

That lack of teacher training has a direct effect on the way students learn, or fail to learn, science, according to Susan Doubler, a project director at TERC, a nonprofit education research and development organization based in Cambridge, Mass.

“Teachers need a good understanding of the concepts of science,” said Ms. Doubler, who is putting together an online science education master’s program for elementary and middle school teachers. “Their understanding leads to improved student understanding.”

Only 7 percent of the deans who were surveyed for the report said they were “very confident” that elementary school pupils are receiving a good science education. More than half, 56 percent, said they were a “little confident” or “not confident” at all.

Meanwhile, the National Science Foundation outlined the outlook for “Science and Engineering Indicators 2004,” this year’s edition prepared for the president of the United States.

The proportion of U.S. citizens who are qualified to fill science and engineering jobs is stagnating, while competition for foreigners to fill those positions is increasing, says the well-regarded report, which covers national and international science and engineering trends in education, the labor force, and the global marketplace.

In part, the reason for the leveling-off in the United States is that fewer high school and college students are seeking natural science and engineering degrees. In 1975, the United States ranked third in the world in the percentage of students pursuing such degrees. Now, it is 17th, according to the NSF report.

Need for a Sputnik

An increasing number of reports and surveys are saying the same thing, said Gerry Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, based in Arlington, Va. “There is a huge wake-up call out there,” he said. “But no one is picking up the phone.”

The United States needs to make science education a higher priority, especially in the earlier grades, he asserted. “We need another Sputnik,” he said, referring to the 1957 launch of the satellite that was seen as an alarming sign of Soviet superiority in science. Subsequently, U.S. policymakers pressed schools to increase their emphasis on science and math.

Early science preparation for students “is so important to their future choices in high schools and in their careers,” Mr. Wheeler said.

Grabbing students’ attention early so they will be more interested in pursuing science careers later was one reason the Bayer survey focused on elementary teachers, said Rebecca Lucore, the executive director of the Philadelphia-based Bayer Foundation, an arm of the pharmaceutical company. “We need to increase our science pipeline,” she said.

Between March 10 and April 2, researchers with Market Research Institute Inc., in Mission, Kan., conducted telephone interviews with 1,000 teachers of grades K- 5 who had been in the classroom between three and five years. The Bayer survey has a margin of error of 3 percent.

In addition, the researchers interviewed 250 deans of colleges of education, also by telephone. The results from that survey have a margin of error of 7 percent.

Most of the deans and teachers, 95 percent and 93 percent, respectively, reported that inquiry-based science lessons, which include hands-on activities, are the most effective way of teaching the subject because they engage students in the lessons.

“There is a shift happening” away from traditional, textbook-based science education, Ms. Lucore said. “But, like any education reform, it takes time.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 19, 2004 edition of Education Week as Studies Suggest Science Education Neglected

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