I am writing in response to NSTA President Linda Froschauer’s editorial in the September 2006 issue of the NSTA journals. In her message, she clearly outlined the precarious position of our nation’s technological advantage. India, China, and many European and Asian countries are quickly closing the “innovation gap” that has benefited the United States for the past half-century. Craig Barrett, the chairman of Intel Corporation, stated at a 2005 Task Force on the Future of American Innovation press conference, “It’s a creeping crisis, and it is not something the American psyche responds well to—it’s not a Sputnik shot, it’s not a tsunami. It is rather a slow and steady erosion of our competitive advantage.”
So, what can we, as science educators, do to stop this erosion? Education is the key to remaining competitive. Froschauer suggests a number of things that can be done. I would like to add an additional item that is vitally important. As science education leaders, we need to move beyond the walls of our classroom. We need to build collaborations between schools, professional engineers and technologists, and industry in an effort to place our science curriculum in a real-world context. We need to inspire and nurture students to pursue careers in science and technology.
These collaborations work. Six years ago, I was involved as the teacher/advisor for a FIRST Robotics Challenge (FRC) robotics team. The team was a partnership between three high schools and an engineering firm. One of my students, Joe, hadn’t given any thought to his post-high school life and did not plan on attending college. That year, I left the school to accept a different position and didn’t see Joe again until this past spring. I was volunteering for an FRC regional event and ran into Joe. Not only was he an undergraduate student majoring in mechanical engineering, but he was also a mentor of a high-school robotics team. As I talked to him, he mentioned that one of the engineers on our team six years ago was a personal hero of his and he was volunteering as a way to give back to the program that inspired him. There are many more examples of these collaborations across the nation.
Science educators are in a unique position to lead the reforms needed to educate the next generation of innovators. Beat the “creeping crisis” drum, engage local professional technologists in your teaching, inspire your students, and demand leadership from your elected officials to ensure that we invest in science education.
Eric Brunsell, Department of Educational Studies, University of Wisconsin–La Crosse
In her editorial “Quality Science Teachers: Essential to America’s Future,” which appeared in the September 2006 issue of the NSTA journals, NSTA President Linda Froschauer wrote passionately about the importance of American science education. While I certainly agree that science education in this country is very important, I respectfully disagree on the reasons why. Instead of making calls for national superiority, we should be emphasizing the students’ personal interests and opportunities to improve quality of life across the globe.
Froschauer is using a view that is based on the idea that our scientific success relative to that of other nations is somehow connected to our quality of life. While this may have been true in the Cold War era, it is not true today. We should be flattered: The countries where scientific work is rapidly improving, such as China and India, are trying to imitate us, not annihilate us. Furthermore, this progress is helping lift millions out of extreme poverty, which is a good thing, even if those people are not Americans. Finally, scientific progress transcends national boundaries, so we stand to benefit from their discoveries.
All too often, these discussions neglect to consider students’ interests. It is as if we expect students to altruistically become scientists so we can achieve some political objective. This would be an entirely unreasonable request—if it were valid. The truth is there are many reasons that learning science benefits students personally. It helps students appreciate our magnificent world. It can lead them toward careers they will find rewarding both financially and emotionally. Finally, it helps students develop the analytic abilities they’ll need to make good decisions in life, both on and off the job. But as long as we leave these reasons to learn science out of the debate, students won’t see why they should bother.
A further note of caution for those who want students to altruistically become scientists in order to improve our national quality of life—their efforts to reach this goal might fail. Studies comparing Americans’ self-reported happiness now to that of several decades ago indicate that our quality of life has not risen along with our scientific knowledge and financial wealth. Froschauer touched on this phenomenon in her article when she observed that “our nation has begun to take science and the accomplishments of scientists in the United States for granted.” Indeed it has, because without many of those accomplishments, we would still be about as well off. Our happiness has physiological limits, and we appear to have hit them a long time ago.
Or have we? The studies further conclude that to make ourselves happier, we should be spending more time with our family and friends and less in the lab or office. The extra material wealth our work brings is often not worth its psychological toll—that is, unless you’re like me and really enjoy the work. Thus, the Chinese and Indian model for scholastic scientific success, built on long hours of study imposed by demanding parents, is inappropriate in America. We should look instead to Europe, whose citizens enjoy significantly more time off than Americans and in turn report higher levels of happiness.
Finally, for what work we are doing, we should focus our efforts on that which will improve quality of life, be it in this country or beyond. Froschauer is spot-on here in citing energy and medicine as important areas—and these areas definitely require a lot of science. By connecting science and quality of life improvements, we can provide crucial motivation for our students. If we can convince students that their work truly is important, then they will respond—just as they responded in decades past when the Soviet Union truly did pose a threat to our lives. But please avoid the hollow nationalism we’re hearing these days. It’s not true, and students see through it—which is why it doesn’t work.
Seth Baum, PhD Student in Electrical Engineering, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts
NSTA President’s Response
I’m so pleased that I received responses to my editorial, “Quality Science Teachers: Essential to America’s Future,” which appeared in the September issue of NSTA’s journals. The response indicates to me that the issues the article raises are vitally important.
One risks the possibility of not covering all of the issues and intricacies of such a topic in a short journal piece. The related issues are vast, and column length prohibits a study in depth. The role of science teachers in the life choices of students is certainly a topic that could generate hours of discussion and analysis. I hoped to select major points surrounding the issue of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers even though it would be impossible to address all facets of science teaching.
Many responses were supportive of the basic tenets included in the article. One letter, in particular, brought out points that I feel should be publicly addressed, as this provides yet more opportunity to continue the discussion. Seth Baum is correct in his assertion that my article does not address the issue of student interest and the role a quality science teacher has in developing a passion for science. This should be a part of every teacher’s basic philosophy and should not be taken for granted. Whether or not students select science as an integral part of their future profession, they should be nurtured and taught in such a way that they will be informed, interested, and motivated to learn more. Whatever their career choice, students should make their decisions based on what they care deeply about. It may be that their decision includes contributing to society through STEM. Whatever the choice, as Baum points out, without knowledge of science concepts and the nature of science they will not make well-informed decisions and “appreciate our magnificent world.”
The comparison of our country’s rank in relationship to other nations is used as a barometer, not as a rally cry to our students nor as a political objective for national superiority. These rankings are just some of the many indicators we can use to determine whether we are meeting our potential and tapping our resources. By citing the status of our educational system and our inventiveness as compared to other nations, I am not suggesting that our success should suppress the accomplishments of other nations. Innovation and discovery by all nations mutually inform and enhance scientific work. Our success does not come at the expense of their failure. All nations can succeed in educating their youth and encouraging them to enter the STEM pipeline.
I disagree with a statement made by Baum that we would still be about as well off without scientific accomplishments. He does not cite a specific year for his comparison. If measuring satisfaction with our current quality of life as compared to that of previous generations, the factor of emotions and nostalgia cannot be eliminated from the selection made by individuals. The “good old days” frequently ignore the contributions of those in STEM professions and inclusion of scientific discoveries in the equation. As wonderful as it might be for me to consider the decade of my youth and the music, relationships, and security of that time in my life, I know that it was also the time when: An American waterway was so polluted that it caught fire; my neighborhood friends were stricken with polio; infant mortality was 26 of each 1,000 births (compared to 6.9/1,000 in 2000); there were less than 5,000 items available in a grocery store dominated by canned goods (today’s typical supermarket offers 45,000); and—on a personal note—my life expectancy was 72 and it is now 83. Whether we look exclusively at STEM or include human rights, education, recreation, and employment, I do not see that we were as “well off” then as we are now. And, should we stop here? Absolutely not: We should continue to add to our knowledge base and encourage innovation.
Mr. Baum focuses on accumulation of material wealth and the amount of time Americans dedicate to work in his support of returning to a previous period of time. He also suggests changing our nation as a solution to changing a feeling of well being. He denounces patterning the United States after China or India, yet recommends that America becomes more like Europe—stating that Europeans have a higher level of happiness. As Americans, we are unique in all of the world, and our political opinions, selection of professions, leisure choices, family relationships, and income are all a part of what constitutes the fabric of our nation. Our wealth is measured in freedom, better health, longer lives, more recreational opportunities, mobility, and the list goes on. We can and must all take personal responsibility for our own quality of life and feeling of well-being—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are tools that can help us determine our own identity.
As science teachers, we have many responsibilities. Encouraging students and igniting their interest, whatever their career decisions, is one of our most important responsibilities. Perhaps a few students will select STEM careers, and those who do might impact the future well-being of all of us.
Linda Froschauer, President, 2006–2007, National Science Teachers Association