We call on policy makers to embrace a national vision for science education that can guide efforts across the country to create the conditions for elementary and secondary schools, and postsecondary institutions to provide better, more equitable science education for all students. Our vision is that every student experiences the joy, beauty, and power of science, learns how science can be used to solve local and global problems, sees the pathways they can take into science-related careers, and feels welcomed and valued in science classrooms. Providing high-quality science learning experiences is the core of this vision. The good news is that research and experience provide a clear picture of what high-quality science education can and should look like.
High-Quality Science Teaching and Learning
To provide high-quality teaching and learning in science, our nation, states, and communities must reframe the way they think about students from kindergarten through college. Students do not learn best by passively soaking up bits of information and then regurgitating it through multiple-choice tests and other simple measures designed to assess factual knowledge . Rather, from the earliest ages,
children and youth are actively working to make sense of the world. They are capable of asking questions, gathering data, evaluating evidence, and generating new insights, just as professional scientists do .
Currently, however, far too many students at all levels are learning science by reading about it in a textbook, sitting back and passively listening to lectures, and memorizing disconnected facts [14, 15, 16, 17]. These approaches leave many students bored and asking a question that is far too often uttered in American schools: “What does science have to do with my life?” Worse, too many students perceive science as inaccessible, as a discipline consigned to an elite few who are willing to persist in a system that uses antiquated instructional practices. Worse still, lacking role models, students of color may not consider science as a potential career. The end result is that our nation ends up retaining a few and weeding out many—a practice that results in substantial inequities and an American citizenry of science “haves” and science “have-nots” .
Our vision for science classrooms is informed by what is known about how students learn, regardless of where they are on the education continuum. In K-12 education, the evidence about learning and teaching science has been brought together in the Framework for K-12 Science Education  developed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and its partners. The Framework outlines the core competencies in science and emphasizes that students learn and become proficient in science when they are active participants using the tools and practices of science. (See Box 3 for more information about the Framework.)
If a person wants to learn to play the trumpet, they need to blow air into it, figure out how to position their lips on the mouthpiece, and what valves to press to produce the right sounds. They need to experiment and discover, not read about trumpet playing in a book. The same applies to learning science. Reading about science in a book, listening to someone talk about it, or memorizing key terms will not get the job done.
In the same way, students across elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education need opportunities to do the things that scientists do: pose questions, carry out investigations, analyze data, draw evidence-based conclusions, and communicate results in various ways. They need to engage with scientific phenomena and, as scientists do, debate with peers to develop the conceptual understanding of science that leads to factual understanding as well [13, 14, 15]. (See Box 4 for more information about high-quality postsecondary science.)
Science should also be meaningful and relevant to students so that they no longer ask, “What does this have to do with my life?” In the classrooms we envision, students will be able to make connections between the experiences they have in their homes and communities and the content they are learning in science . When educators limit science teaching to a set of facts to be memorized, they subvert students’ natural inclination to grapple with problems that are real to them. Meaningful science experiences that provide opportunities for students to explore questions they are passionate about foster the development of critical thinking and scientific skills, reinforce that science is relevant to students’ daily lives, and inspire them to consider science-related fields as career paths.
A Well-Prepared, Diverse Science Teaching Workforce
Teachers of science at all levels are the key to fulfilling a vision for high-quality, engaging, active, student-centered learning. To implement a vision of better, more equitable science education, teachers of science need to be fluent in the subject matter they teach and fluent in the pedagogy of effective science instruction, including how to promote the success of culturally and linguistically diverse students in the context of science . Effective teachers of science understand that their job is not merely to impart knowledge but rather provide opportunities for students to build their knowledge through problem solving and experimentation. In their classrooms, students learn by doing. Teachers play a key role as facilitators of small teams of student scientists working to conduct investigations, gather evidence, and discuss and debate with teammates what conclusions they can draw from the evidence. They know how to set up open-ended investigations through which students may arrive at and debate different conclusions that are always based on logical reasoning, evidence, and analysis. They recognize that communication in all forms is an essential part of science, and that in addition to teaching science, they are building critical communication skills. Their teaching is grounded in the belief that every student can succeed in the science classroom and it is their job to support those who are struggling.
Effective teaching practice does not come about by accident. It is the result of providing teachers with opportunities to learn throughout their teaching careers [16, 19]. This includes knowledge of science, an initial foundation in effective student-centered pedagogy in science, and culturally and linguistically responsive practice, even for teachers of science in higher education. To continue to build on this initial foundation, all teachers of science across K-16 need ample opportunities to engage in ongoing professional learning focused specifically on science pedagogy, and to participate in professional communities in which members observe each other’s practice and provide feedback, solve problems together, and refine classroom activities and units.
We envision a K-16 education system that prioritizes and values the quality of science teaching and recognizes teachers of science at all levels as professionals. In this vision, elementary, secondary, and postsecondary teachers of science feel supported by their institutional leaders who advocate for their ongoing learning and recognize its importance. This is especially important in postsecondary education where professional demands and reward structures may not emphasize teaching. Teachers from groups that are underrepresented among science teachers—Black, Latino/a, and Indigenous teachers across K-16 and women in some postsecondary institutions [20, 21, 22, 23] —will feel welcome and valued, with the result that there is a diverse body of science educators who look more like America. This also means that more students have the opportunity to connect with science teachers who look like them.
Supportive Pathways Through Science
Students’ opportunities to learn science by doing science need to continue across K-12 and into their postsecondary experiences. As they move into high school and college, they will need expanded opportunities to learn science through internships, apprenticeships, and foundational research experiences .
In our vision, students who are interested in pursuing science or STEM-related careers have clear pathways to follow and encounter few barriers transitioning between different institutions . Higher education makes it a priority to broaden opportunity for populations of students underrepresented in STEM professions and produces science and engineering graduates of all races and ethnicities in at least proportion to their percentage share of the American population. (See Box 5 for an example of the pathways taken by a life-saving scientist.)
In this vision, all students finishing postsecondary programs or degrees leave understanding even more deeply than they did upon high school graduation how science and scientific thinking are relevant to their careers and lives. Those receiving STEM degrees are specialists in their area of interest, prepared to succeed in the workforce, or pursue post baccalaureate degrees after participating in rigorous, relevant, student-centered coursework and undergraduate research opportunities.
If the nation fulfills this vision and extends the opportunity for a high-quality science education to all, the question, “What does science have to do with my life?” should disappear from the lexicon of students. America will thrive as a nation of science “haves.”