Why Do We Need Science, Anyway?

Laser surgery . . . life in a meteorite from Mars . . . cable television . . . the Internet . . . gene therapy . . . faxes . . . . These are signs of our times, markers of the late 20th century's scientific and technological revolution. Science and technology have changed the way we work, communicate, and view the world.

As adults, we can remember a time—not so very long ago—when our homes and businesses were quite different. In the late 1960s, answering machines and VCRs were not commercially available. Now they are commonplace. In the 1980s, offices were beginning to use computers. Today, not only do most office workers have their own "PC," but many computers are part of an extensive network—the Internet—that can bring information, photographs, and moving images to individuals at work and at home.

Technology Has Changed Our Lives

Computer technology also has revolutionized industry. Automobile manufacturing plants rely increasingly on automated systems to do the job hundreds of workers used to do. The workforce in such plants must have a radically different set of skills than did their predecessors.

Agriculture has been influenced by scientific advances as well. Through genetic engineering, farmers and scientists are working together to develop more productive, heartier, and disease-resistant crops.

These days, it is difficult to think of a job that does not require some expertise in technology. Take your neighborhood school. Right now, your school's cafeteria workers may be using e-mail to send the

Questions on the NAEP Test

According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 14 percent of fourth-graders knew that it is easier to stay afloat in salt water than in fresh water and could explain why. Only 10 percent of eighth-graders knew why eating potato salad made with mayonnaise that has been left out in the sun could cause food poisoning. Only 26 percent of twelfth-graders could figure out how to use a sieve, a magnet, water, and a filter to separate a mixture of steel pellets, copper pellets, iron filings, sand, and salt.



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Why Do We Need Science, Anyway? Laser surgery . . . life in a meteorite from Mars . . . cable television . . . the Internet . . . gene therapy . . . faxes . . . . These are signs of our times, markers of the late 20th century's scientific and technological revolution. Science and technology have changed the way we work, communicate, and view the world. As adults, we can remember a time—not so very long ago—when our homes and businesses were quite different. In the late 1960s, answering machines and VCRs were not commercially available. Now they are commonplace. In the 1980s, offices were beginning to use computers. Today, not only do most office workers have their own "PC," but many computers are part of an extensive network—the Internet—that can bring information, photographs, and moving images to individuals at work and at home. Technology Has Changed Our Lives Computer technology also has revolutionized industry. Automobile manufacturing plants rely increasingly on automated systems to do the job hundreds of workers used to do. The workforce in such plants must have a radically different set of skills than did their predecessors. Agriculture has been influenced by scientific advances as well. Through genetic engineering, farmers and scientists are working together to develop more productive, heartier, and disease-resistant crops. These days, it is difficult to think of a job that does not require some expertise in technology. Take your neighborhood school. Right now, your school's cafeteria workers may be using e-mail to send the Questions on the NAEP Test According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 14 percent of fourth-graders knew that it is easier to stay afloat in salt water than in fresh water and could explain why. Only 10 percent of eighth-graders knew why eating potato salad made with mayonnaise that has been left out in the sun could cause food poisoning. Only 26 percent of twelfth-graders could figure out how to use a sieve, a magnet, water, and a filter to separate a mixture of steel pellets, copper pellets, iron filings, sand, and salt.

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school lunch orders to the dispatcher. The custodial staff may be in a workshop to learn how to operate the school's new, high-tech security system. The administrative assistant could be faxing immunization records to the school system's central office to expedite the registration of new students. Using the school's computer network, your child's teacher may be looking at grade reports as the principal reviews the agenda of the upcoming school board meeting. During the past two decades, science also has become more integral to our daily lives. Twenty-five years ago, if a child injured her knee while playing soccer, parents would take her to the emergency room for an X-ray. Today, the doctor could recommend an MRI (magnetic resonance image) as well. The more familiar people are with such devices and procedures the easier it will be to make informed decisions about their use. Many of us in our own homes and workplaces are scrambling to keep up with science and technology, but our children cannot afford to be unprepared. They must be ready to take their roles as citizens, employees, and family members in a rapidly changing world and highly competitive global job market. Is Our Educational System Keeping Up? Preparation for a more scientifically and technologically complex world requires the best possible education. Beginning in kindergarten, children must learn how to think critically, synthesize information accurately, and solve problems creatively. They also need new skills-facility with computers, the ability to communicate using all available media, and familiarity with the science and technology that form the foundation of the modern world. Is our educational system meeting the changing needs of our students? Evidence from the 1996 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) suggests not. Administered to students in grades 4, 8, and 12, these tests are designed to provide a snapshot of our progress in science education. Although most students have some grasp of basic scientific facts and principles by the end of high school, they are not able to apply scientific knowledge to a new situation, design an original experiment, or explain the reasoning behind their answers. The Purposes of NAEP and TIMSS For over 25 years, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been the United States' only ongoing assessment of K-12 students' educational progress. This Congressionally mandated test measures what students know and are able to do against what has been agreed as desirable for students to know and be able to do in science as well as in other subjects. Whereas NAEP scores show the level of knowledge a student has (basic, proficient, or advanced), the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is an international comparative study on an agreed upon set of topics in math and science.

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The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) revealed a slightly different picture in 1997. When ranked against the other nations in this sample, U.S. fourth-grade students significantly outscored students from 13 nations in science. Only students from Korea performed better. Unfortunately, by the eighth grade, U.S. students scored only slightly above average in science among all 41 countries in the study. Students in Japan, Korea, Singapore, the Czech Republic, and Hungary surpassed U.S. students in science achievement. The chart below summarizes these results. Although there probably are multiple reasons for the poor results on the NAEP and the eighth-grade TIMSS tests, the message from Nations' Science Performance Compared To The U.S.* Grade 4 Grade 8 NATIONS WITH AVERAGE SCORES SIGNIFICANTLY HIGHER THAN THE U.S. NATIONS WITH AVERAGE SCORES SIGNIFICANTLY HIGHER THAN THE U.S. Korea Singapore Czech Republic Japan Korea Hungary NATIONS WITH AVERAGE SCORES SIGNIFICANTLY LOWER THAN THE U.S. NATIONS WITH AVERAGE SCORES SIGNIFICANTLY LOWER THAN THE U.S. England Canada Singapore Ireland Scotland Hong Kong New Zealand Norway Iceland Greece Portugal Cyprus  Iran Spain France Iceland Latvia Portugal Portugal Lithuania Iran Cyprus * (Table amended from Pursuing Excellence [two studies], U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996, 1997)

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both is that, on the average, our schools are not providing the kind of quality science experiences our students need in a highly technical and competitive world. Good Science Teaching Can Make a Difference The key ingredient in improving the quality of student learning are the experiences provided by a motivating teacher. Is there anything more exciting to a young child than watching chickens hatch from their eggs? Or when older students look at tiny organisms under a microscope and discover their wonderful construction? From this initial experience, teachers can help students learn what living things need to sustain life, show them what happens when they are deprived of those things, and help students develop a respect for living things. Perhaps the most important role of science is to sustain that sense of awe and wonder in young people that comes from exploring and understanding the natural and technological world. Because science can make a unique difference in a child's life, it is important for it to be a central part of the school curriculum. When it is well taught and student engagement is high, science can be the academic subject that keeps a child's natural love of learning alive.