Points Emphasized by the Speaker
- Educators know the value of inquiry-based education, but without outside support, teaching tends to revert to traditional practices.
- Modern economies need the kinds of skills developed by inquiry-based education.
- The establishment of teacher advisory councils in every state and district would empower teachers to improve the education system at all levels.
- Effective partnership requires that the partners deeply respect and honor each other’s unique expertise.
In his opening presentation at the convocation, Bruce Alberts,1 former president of the National Academy of Sciences and former editor-in-chief of Science magazine, described three ambitious goals for science education:
- Enable all children to acquire the problem-solving, thinking, and communication skills of scientists so that they can make wise
1The PowerPoint file for this presentation is available at http://www.samueli.org/stemconference/documents/Alberts_Moving_Forward_with_STEM_Education.pdf [June 2014].
decisions while also being productive and competitive in the new world economy. “Everybody is always trying to get your money or your vote,” said Alberts. In today’s complex, STEM-based world, people can make good decisions only if they know how to look for evidence and use rational thinking.
- Generate a “scientific temper” for the United States that will ensure the rationality, openness, and tolerance essential for an effective democratic society. “We can’t have a successful democracy if most people can be fooled by simple statements,” said Alberts.
- Help to generate new scientific knowledge and technology by casting the widest possible net for talent.
Educators know what science education should look like, said Alberts. Students should be exploring, hypothesizing, gathering evidence, and drawing conclusions, he said, while teachers should be acting as coaches rather than the sole authoritative source of knowledge. But it is harder to teach this way than by giving students facts to be memorized, and without outside support, teaching tends to revert to traditional approaches.
Alberts provided an example of a curriculum that enables students—kindergarteners, in this case—to engage in STEM learning:
- Put on clean white socks and walk around the schoolyard. Because seeds stick to the fur of animals, a trait that widens dispersal, they also stick to socks, but so do many other things.
- In class, collect all the specks stuck to socks and try to classify them. The teacher asks, “Which are seeds and which are dirt?”
- Examine each speck with a $3 plastic “microscope.”
- Plant both the specks believed to be dirt and those believed to be seeds, thereby testing the idea that the regularly shaped ones are seeds.
To Alberts, the most important aspect of this curriculum is for teachers not to tell their students the answers. Teachers might direct students to draw the shapes of the objects they are investigating on paper, but they need to wait until a student suggests that the regularly shaped objects are seeds. The class then needs to agree that this is a reasonable idea and that planting the different types of objects is a good way of testing it. “This is a wonderful piece of curriculum,” said Alberts, “and if it’s taught well, it enables five-year-olds to think like scientists.”
Many such curricula exist. “Imagine an education that includes solving hundreds of such challenges over the course of the 13 years of schooling that lead to high school graduation—challenges that increase in dif-
ficulty as the children age,” Alberts stated. “Children who are prepared for life in this way would be great problem solvers in the workplace, with the abilities and the can-do attitude that are needed to be competitive in the global economy. Even more important, they will be more rational human beings—people who are able to make wise judgments for their family, their community, and their nation.” The challenge, he said, is enabling teachers to be comfortable with this way of teaching and providing enough time in the school day for this kind of teaching to take place.
Business and industry would welcome this kind of education, said Alberts, because it precisely fits the workforce skills that employers say they need. These skills include
- a high capacity for abstract, conceptual thinking;
- the ability to apply that capacity for abstract thought to complex real-world problems—including problems that involve the use of scientific and technical knowledge—that are nonstandard, full of ambiguities, and have more than one right answer; and
- the capacity to function effectively in work groups and environments in which communication skills are vital.
The bad news, he commented, is that most adults have incorrectly defined what science education means for students. Adults tend to think that the object of science education is to memorize facts and be able to repeat them on tests. In his own field of cell biology, he noted that by the end of their biology classes, many high school students hate cells, because biology classes focus on the names of cell parts and their processes. For example, he referred to a seventh-grade life sciences textbook that includes the sentence, “Running through the cell is a network of flat channels called the endoplasmic reticulum. This organelle manufactures, stores, and transports materials.” The self-test at the end of the chapter says, “Write a sentence that uses the term ‘endoplasmic reticulum’ correctly.” Alberts commented, “I didn’t learn about the endoplasmic reticulum until I was in graduate school, and I don’t think kids need to know it. It’s incredibly depressing to realize what’s happening in schools.”
When he was editor-in-chief of Science magazine, Alberts prominently featured STEM education, both in his editorials and in the rest of the magazine. The magazine published two-page articles from the 24 win-
ners of a contest for the best free science education Websites.2 It had four special issues on education, including one in 2013 on “Grand Challenges in Science Education” (Alberts, 2013). It created a Website called “Science in the Classroom,” which features scientific articles from the magazine with enough background information for students to read and understand those articles. In this way, it is helping to achieve one of the most important goals established by a framework developed by the National Research Council (2012a) that provided the vision and guidance for development of the Next Generation Science Standards: Enable all high school students to “engage in a critical reading of primary scientific literature (adapted for classroom use) or of media reports of science and discuss the validity and reliability of the data, hypotheses, and conclusions” (p. 76).
According to Alberts, one of the most urgent challenges facing STEM educators today is devising tests and other forms of assessment that will measure the knowledge and skills called for by the Next Generation Science Standards (National Research Council, 2014b; Pellegrino, 2013). It is much easier to test for science words than for science understanding and abilities. But bad tests force a trivialization of science education and drive most students, including many potential scientists, away from science, said Alberts. Good tests can be devised, but it will take many talented and knowledgeable people working together to do so. “We need to get the assessments right—quickly,” he stated.
Teachers also need to be empowered, Alberts said. The U.S. automobile industry learned from the Japanese several decades ago that building a better automobile requires listening to workers on the assembly line; “ground truth is essential for wise decision making,” said Alberts. But, he said, education is one of the few parts of society that has failed to act on this fact. “If we are going to keep the kind of people we need in schools and attract new people to the schools as teachers, we have to support teachers’ lives in much more effective ways,” Alberts said. The best science teachers need to have much more influence on the education system at all levels, said Alberts, or they will go into more lucrative and respected careers. He suggested that one valuable approach would be to have teacher advisory councils, such as the ones existing today at the national level and in California, in every state and district.
Partnerships between STEM practitioners and educators also have “an amazing power” to support teachers, Alberts observed. For example, as part of the 25-year-old Science and Health Education Partnership at the University of California, San Francisco, scientists contribute more than 10,000 hours per year, are active in 90 percent of the San Francisco
Unified School District schools, and benefit 21,000 students. Finally, he said, outstanding teachers have much to teach other educators about the best ways to teach.
Alberts ended with three lessons he said he has learned about partnerships:
- Any effective partnership requires that the partners deeply respect and honor each other’s unique expertise. Scientists and science educators both know important things that the other group does not know. Mutual respect and understanding are the basis for working together.
- Funding agencies must work to diminish the strong incentives for “uniqueness,” which is an enemy of coherence, Alberts said. Funding agencies could help replicate proven approaches by supporting cooperation and the dissemination of good practices.
- Partnerships flourish best when the partners can focus on accomplishing an important discrete task, which for schools, afterschool programs, and the informal sector could be to work together to create powerful approaches to STEM education. For example, he suggested, a specific activity would be to create a program that awards badges, comparable to merit badges in scouting, for STEM achievement (Alberts, 2010).
Can a child’s science education impart scientific values? Alberts answered that question with a favorite quotation from the physicist Jacob Bronowski (1956):
The society of scientists is simple because it has a directing purpose: to explore the truth. Nevertheless, it has to solve the problem of every society, which is to find a compromise between the individual and the group. It must encourage the single scientist to be independent, and the body of scientists to be tolerant. From these basic conditions, which form the prime values, there follows step by step a range of values: dissent, freedom of thought and speech, justice, honor, human dignity and self-respect.
Science has humanized our values. Men have asked for freedom, justice, and respect precisely as the scientific spirit has spread among them.