Last fall I asked a first-grade class this simple question: How do scientists know all they know? “Maybe they asked,” said six-year-old Paige. “Maybe they watched. Perhaps they thought about things. Maybe they were ‘teached.’”
All teachers know that young students have a remarkable ability to ponder questions and put them in a context that is understandable to them. These students will readily join in a conversation about life itself and their place within the natural world. In their eyes you can see the point when the sense of wonder earnestly changes into the search for knowledge. Unfortunately, in too many classrooms nationwide, thousands of students don’t get the opportunity to watch, wonder, or ask questions about the world around them.
Two years ago, I was the first K–12 educator to be appointed to the National Science Board (NSB), the oversight body for the National Science Foundation (NSF). Last February in my guest editorial “Let Your Voice Be Heard on the National Science Board” I asked science teachers to e-mail me with their thoughts, challenges, and ideas and more than 200 readers responded. I tried hard to acknowledge each of their comments. I heard from middle and high school teachers who wrote about students coming to them unprepared to learn science, the stress caused by little time for planning and conferring with students who needed the most help, or about their overwhelming feeling of isolation. But the biggest response came from teachers who told me they have to fight for time to teach science.
I, too, see the struggle to teach science in my work consulting with school districts nationwide and have come to the conclusion that science education has been eliminated in far too many primary classrooms—largely thanks to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act—and replaced by the “drill-and-kill” approach. The reality of what is happening—or not happening—in many K–12 science classrooms may have finally raised concerns in Washington, D.C. Since I last reached out to NSTA members last fall asking for your feedback, the U.S. Department of Education’s “Summit on Science” sought to focus attention on science and NCLB. This has not happened to the extent science educators had hoped for. In addition, the National Center for Education Statistics released the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) results that tell us that our fourth-grade students have shown no gains in science since 1995. What’s more, the lack of science being taught in our K–12 classrooms should be cause for alarm in light of the long list of media reports bemoaning the United States’ lack of competitive edge with the rest of the world and our inability to promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers to our young people.
Does this surprise anyone involved in science education? Students will neither do well in a subject they haven’t had nor will they seek out careers they don’t understand. Even in the middle of all this noise, think about this: Each and every one of you may be the only “scientist” many of your students ever come to know. Whatever grade you teach, as a teacher and role model you are a key player in shaping the next generation of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers who will be responsible for the future innovations of this country.
Last year the NSB released a report to the president and congress that said we must stop relying on scientists from abroad and instead better nurture “our local talent” in science and mathematics. In the coming year, the NSB and NSF will be taking a critical look at many of the K–12 programs for math and science education. I will work hard and continue to do my best to be your voice on the NSB, if you will continue to keep me informed of how it is going in your part of the world. I need to know what effect NCLB is having in your district and your classroom. You are the key to the future of science education. Together, maybe we can get science back on the map. My e-mail address is email@example.com. I will answer you!
Jo Anne Vasquez is Past President of NSTA, President-Elect of NSELA, and is currently in her third year as a member of the National Science Board. She is also a consultant for McGraw-Hill Publishers.