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Ideas for Improving Science Education

IVΑNYI GRάNWALD, Bιla, In the Valley, c. 1900, Magyar Nemzeti Galιria, Budapest



· By Claudia Dreifus, The New York Times, September 2, 2013

If you could make one change to improve science education in the United States, what would it be? Science Times asked that question of 19 Americans — scientists, educators, students — with a stake in the answer. Their responses follow.

Carl E. Wieman

Nobel laureate in physics; former associate director, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

If there were one change I could make, it would be to require that universities become more accountable about how they teach basic science and math to undergraduates.

Doing this is important because we are currently providing many undergraduates — including this country’s future K-12 teachers — with a deficient understanding of the basic sciences. At the same time, because of poor teaching, we’re giving them a very negative view of these subjects — negative in the sense that they see them as uninteresting, irrelevant and unnecessarily hard to learn. After they take the typical undergraduate basic-science courses, they have more negative feelings toward the subjects than they did before.

The good news is that we know how to make introductory science courses engaging and effective. If you have classes where students get to think like scientists, discuss topics with each other and get frequent, targeted feedback, they do better. A key element involves instructors designing tasks where students witness real-world examples of how science works.

Right now, there’s enormous pressure on the faculty to obtain research funding, and that drives them away from putting effort into teaching. I’d like to see federal research funding linked to universities’ reporting and publishing information on what teaching methods they use.

Such a requirement would at the very least focus attention on effective science instruction and create an incentive to do better. Moreover, it would provide high school students with information that could impact their choice of college.


‘The good news is that we know how to make introductory science courses engaging and effective.’

Catherine L. Drennan

Professor of chemistry and biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

I teach freshman chemistry at M.I.T. Chemistry — and I think this is true of the other sciences, too — is taught with a historical bent. The students learn about how the great discoveries of the past were made. How did people figure out about that electrons were negatively charged particles, for example? The result is that it can seem as if all discoveries are in the past and were made by dead white guys.

I want the students to know who chemists are, today. I’d like them to learn about the problems modern chemists are solving. With funding from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, we’ve made a series of short videosintroducing real 21st-century chemists — young, old, white, nonwhite, male, female — who talk about what they do.

We’re finding that these videos have a huge impact on developing interest in a chemistry career. In particular, there’s a very dramatic impact on the women — they are more able to see themselves as chemists. It’s not just that there are women in the videos, but that the chemists talk about solving serious contemporary problems. For instance, some of the videos have to do with solving the energy problem, and the women in my class will say, "I want to do that."

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‘It can seem as if all discoveries are in the past and were made by dead white guys.’

Alan I. Leshner

Chief executive officer, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

K-12 students need to know the nature of science, how scientists work and the domains and limits of science. Science can’t tell you about God. Or when life begins.

Students also need to know some high-level core concepts: like evolution and what genes are and how they work. In order for that to happen, you need teachers personally immersed in science. And to do that, you need to restructure the reward system for teachers so that K-12 teaching becomes a viable, respected career alternative for people trained in science.

At present, many scientists are looking at careers outside of the academy. We ought to be able to make teaching science in the schools an option. For that to happen, you must ensure that these scientist-teachers will have financial security comparable to what they’d have in academia. They’ll also need to get respect. Scientists won’t go into careers that are viewed as second-tier fallback alternatives.

Also, the educational community needs to exploit the scientific community’s desire to help. There are many, many retired scientists and engineers who’d love to go into the schools and use their knowledge and experience to assist the regular teachers.

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Freeman A. Hrabowski III

Mathematician; president, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

When I give talks around the country, I often ask the audience: "How many of you knew you were an English/history type or a math/science type by the time you were in 11th grade?" Almost all the hands go up. And, when I ask why, I often hear, "Because I was better in English."

The question is: How does someone know that at 15 or 16? The way that math or science works in our lives is not always obvious.

We need to create opportunities to excite students about how math and science connect to real life. Few teachers have opportunities to use their math skills outside the classroom. I would like to see more partnerships involving school systems, the corporate sector and government that provide teachers paid summer work opportunities applying their math skills to real-life problems.

Right now, many students are bored in class, and they will ask the teacher, "When am I ever going to use this?" If you say, "Geometry will teach you how to think well," it won’t mean much to a 16-year-old. But a teacher who has worked summers in green construction engineering can show their students how they’ve used geometric concepts.

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Elizabeth Blackburn

Nobel laureate in medicine; biochemist, University of California, San Francisco.

I think that the thing science educators have to do is teach one important lesson: that science requires immersion. A lot of teaching is about setting up these little projects. But real science happens when you’re really immersed in a question.

Now I’m not talking about general science literacy, which is one thing. I’m talking about science education aimed at developing a new generation of scientists, which is something else. The way we teach it now, with an hour of instruction here and a laboratory class there, it doesn’t allow for what has been my experience: that immersion is the essence of scientific discovery. Science just isn’t something you can do in one-hour-and-a-half bits. Digging deep is what makes people actually productive. If I could change one thing, it would be to build this idea into the curriculum.

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‘Real science happens when you’re really immersed in a question.’

Rita Colwell

Cholera researcher, former director, National Science Foundation.

I’d like to bring graduate students in science, engineering and mathematics into the elementary, middle and senior high schools to teach the science to these K-12 students. The purpose is to elevate the science taught in the K-12 schools by providing teachers who are knowledgeable of their science, engineering or mathematics and, most importantly, love their chosen professions. The graduate students are closer in age to the K-12 students and serve as wonderful role models.

For 12 years, we had such a program, run by the N.S.F. But unfortunately, it has recently been cut and eliminated. It needs to be continued. These graduate students inspire youngsters to consider science, engineering or mathematics as a career. The youngsters find science fun; the graduate students are cherished mentors.

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John Matsui

Director, Biology Scholars Program, University of California, Berkeley.

I’d get rid of the Darwinian model we have in our basic college science courses — chemistry, biology, physics — where students are set against each other. At the beginning of the school year, the freshman chemistry or biology professor typically says, "Look around you — half of you won’t be here next year."

I would change that to a system where we reward mastery of the subject matter, rather than grading on a curve. At present, the emphasis in these basic science courses is about weeding out an arbitrary number of students rather than educating anyone who’s demonstrated an interest and capacity. We are wasting a lot of human potential.


‘We are wasting a lot of human potential.’

Najib Jammal

Principal, Lakeland Elementary/Middle School, Baltimore

If I could change one thing, it would be to have the kids work in small groups more than they do now and get to apply their STEM learning to projects that benefit their community. We have a community garden, and we think it’s great to have the students design an irrigation system for it. This shows them how to apply their math problems to issues of sustainability. I’d like to see schools become self-sufficient and sustainable, and STEM work can help us get there.


Deon Sanders

Fifth grader, Lakeland Elementary/Middle School, Baltimore.

I need science and math education to be more about life.


Dianne Marie Omire-Mayor

High school senior, Washington.

I’d like more hands-on projects where I would learn something about what I’m doing instead of just memorizing things from a textbook.


Naomi Mburu

High school senior, Baltimore.

One of the problems I have during math class is not understanding the reasoning behind what we are doing. The teacher will put something on the board and say, "This is how you do it," and I’m thinking, "Why does that make sense?" The teachers are sometimes reluctant to explain it because they think we won’t understand. But if something doesn’t make sense to me, I can’t do it. I’d rather understand than just memorize formulas.


‘I’d rather understand than just memorize formulas. ’

Maria Klawe

Computer scientist; president, Harvey Mudd College.

I wish that every STEM educator at the beginning of every course would discuss the "impostor syndrome" with their students. That’s the frequent sense of being a failure despite every evidence of success. Like many other women in STEM careers, I suffer from this myself.

If educators did that, students — especially those in underrepresented fields such as women, African-Americans, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans — would learn that it’s common for all students to doubt their ability with this difficult enterprise.

Moreover, I wish that STEM educators at whatever level would help all students understand that hard work and persistence are much more important to scientific success than natural ability.

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Paulo Blickstein

Director, Transformative Learning Technologies Laboratory, School of Education, Stanford University.



I’d love to see a once-a-week day in K-12 devoted to invention — an ‘Idea Day."

Teachers would reorganize the school space, transforming it into a mix of design firm, engineering laboratory, fabrication laboratory and science center. And there the students would use scientific concepts to invent something.

Because of their projects, the kids would become more curious about physics, math, science in their normal STEM classes because they would use this knowledge to get their projects right. For them, the STEM subjects would be much more interesting, because the basic concepts would be part of useful projects they themselves created.

We want kids in school to have that experience of seeing how science and math lead to making things. In a controlled study conducted in our lab we found a statistically significant increase of 25 percent in performance when open-ended exploration came before text or video study rather than after it.

We’d like kids to learn how to solve hard problems and what it takes to pull off a complex endeavor, how to plan, collaborate, fail and not give up. In other words, we want them to see what science and math can do when they are used by a creative mind.


‘We want kids in school to have that experience of seeing how science and math lead to making things.’

Mitzi Montoya

Dean, College of Technology and Innovation, Arizona State University.

If I could change one thing about engineering education — well, actually, all education — it would be to center it around solving real problems and making things. In other words, we ought to be creating innovators and inventors at our engineering schools. They need to be able to do something more than solve theoretical problems when they leave us. In other words, they should learn how to be an applied problem solver, which is not the same thing as being a fantastic book-based equation solver.

None of us learned how to do anything well by being talked at — it’s boring. We learn best by doing — getting our hands dirty and making our own mistakes.

Imagine the difference in learning between an engineering student who theoretically designed an elevator with wonderful calculations for a great grade versus one who actually built an elevator by iterating through various challenges connecting principles and formulas to reality. Which one do you want designing the next elevator you step on — or automobile or pacemaker or anything? Theoretical paper-and-pencil exercises are not enough.

Retention of students is a major problem in engineering education — as is recruiting talented students into engineering programs. It’s often the excessive theorizing with no connection to application that drives students away.

We’ve overemphasized content when, in fact, it’s context that matters — math and science make a lot more sense when you see it applied. We need to get students working on exciting real-world projects for companies and our communities right from the start if we want to attract and produce more engineers.

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‘None of us learned how to do anything well by being talked at.’

Michael F. Summers

Biochemist; Howard Hughes Medical Investigator, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

There’s an unfortunate disconnect for kids who show some interest in science while in high school and their maintaining it while they are undergraduates at college.

One of the ways we are addressing that is that we take about a dozen high school and college students into my lab each year, assign them an older mentor, train them in biochemical techniques and give them real problems to work on that the senior people need solved for our ongoing AIDS research.

I recently had a group of youngsters who were looking at the genetic material of human immunodeficiency virus. They were given an experiment that the senior people thought was important to do as a control, but that the adults thought they knew the answer to already. The students obtained surprising data, and the senior people changed their research. When things like that happen, the kids begin self-identifying as scientists. They stop thinking that a science career can be theirs 10 years from now — an eternity to an adolescent. They think of themselves as scientists, now.

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Salman Khan

Founder, Khan Academy, which offers free online courses.

Right now, in STEM subjects, we assess someone’s potential based on how well they can factor a polynomial or how many questions they get right on an S.A.T. math score or how well they can write an algorithm in a computer science class.

These things are important, but they aren’t an actual measure of your real potential to be successful at science, technology and/or mathematics. This is like measuring the potential of a painter based on how well they mix paint.

Despite the STEM subjects’ being about new ways of thinking and creating new things, many students don’t perceive them as creative. And that’s because, to a large degree, the type of filters we have for these subjects are actually filtering out our most creative people. If I had one wish in this area, it would be to see that creativity and invention became the central focus of STEM courses and that the traditional skills be viewed as what they are: tools to empower creativity.

This means more of the students’ evaluation would be based on a portfolio of what they’ve done, as opposed to a score on a standardized test. This means more of class time would be devoted to exploring and inventing and less to lecturing and quiz-taking.

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Steven Strogatz

Professor of Mathematics, Cornell University; author, “The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, From One to Infinity.”

If I could do one thing, I’d get real mathematicians who are math types to become math teachers. K-12 students need someone there with a real feel for the subject matter. Give them the freedom to teach what they want.

It has to be discouraging to have to teach to a test and a set curriculum.

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Mariette DiChristina

Editor in chief, Scientific American.

We’ve known for decades that family involvement is key to learning success for our nation’s children. So to me the answer is clear: We need to make it easy for families to have fun with science — to ask questions about how the world works, and to explore the answers together. And we must expand our efforts, as a society, beyond formal schooling.

At Scientific American, we’ve been moving this idea forward by providing simple science-related activities that parents and kids can do with items they have around the house.

A feature on our Web site, "Bring Science Home," showcases projects that families can do together. For instance, everyone in the family can learn how, with just some dishwasher detergent and rubbing alcohol, to pull DNA strands out of a banana in your kitchen mixing bowl. Presto!

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John Maeda

President, Rhode Island School of Design; former associate director of research, M.I.T. Media Lab.

One concrete thing to do is for STEM teachers, especially in K-12, to invite their art-teacher colleagues into their labs. At the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, they have artists all over there, and they are discovering that involving artists can improve their work radically.

Great science is about thinking out of the box. And art is way out of the box, and having that kind of influence improves both sides. Artists test the edges of how humanity is and can be, and scientists make it happen.

Science with humanity is googol times more amazing. Everyone’s eyes open up. We know that when science and art combine, they synthesize something new and better. I’d like to see STEM turned into STEAM.

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‘I’d like to see STEM turned into STEAM. ’


Carl E. Wieman

· Catherine L. Drennan

· Alan I. Leshner

· Freeman A. Hrabowski III

· Elizabeth Blackburn

· Rita Colwell

· John Matsui

· Najib Jammal

· Deon Sanders

· Dianne Marie Omire-Mayor

· Naomi Mburu

· Maria Klawe

· Paulo Blickstein

· Mitzi Montoya

· Michael F. Summers

· Salman Khan

· Steven Strogatz

· Mariette DiChristina

· John Maeda

· Share

Illustrations by Sean McCabe

· ©



IVΑNYI GRάNWALD, Bιla, View of Nagybαnya with Gutin, 1900, Janus Pannonius Museum, Pιcs

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