The disconnect in science education

Every year, Project Tomorrow administers the annual SpeakUp survey of students, parents, teachers, and administrators. Every year, we hear from U.S. students that they are fascinated by technology, love learning, and want more. Results from the over 300,000 participants in the 2008 survey should be available soon.

While we wait, let’s look at some interesting data from the science questions from 2007.

In the U.S., STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) is a hot topic these days. Pundits bemoan the lack of basic science literacy, blame American students for apathy, and predict we will be crushed by global competition. But who ever asks students what they are interested in or how best they learn?

In looking at the report, Inspiring the Next Generation of Innovators: Students, Parents and Educators Speak Up about Science Education, you immediately see the glaring inconsistencies in how students learn, what fascinates and excites them, how teachers want to teach, and what’s actually happening in classrooms. What does it mean for the future when less than 40 percent of these students see learning science as important for making informed decisions in the future? How does that square with the same students reporting that they “…are open to learning science and pursuing STEM careers—intrigued by opportunities to participate in hands-on, group-oriented, “fun” experiences, as well as by opportunities to meet with professionals and use professional-level tools.”

It’s obvious that students are experiencing a disconnect. They are interested and intrigued by science — but not in school.

  • Students report that their especially fun or interesting learning experiences using science and math have been hands-on and group-oriented.
  • Students are interested in pursuing careers in STEM fields — when they know about them.
  • When asked about the essential features of their imagined ultimate science classroom, the leading answer for students in grades K-2 and in grades 9-12 was “teachers excited about science”. Students in grades 3-5 were more interested in “fun experiments” (69 percent). Other highly essential features for students in grades 3-12 were “real tools” (standard lab and technology-based tools) and being able to do “real research,” including online research on computers.

Imagine that — students want teachers who are inspired and inspiring, who bring the classroom to life with real world tools and examples. These teachers are out there, students want and need them, but apparently are getting them too rarely.

This disconnect is reflected in the teacher responses as well.

  • Just 25% of teachers say they’re using inquiry-based methods with their students; methods that both educators and researchers argue are essential for the development of scientific literacy.
  • Only 16 percent of teachers reported they are assigning projects that help students develop problem-solving skills.
  • Teachers report that 21st century tools and projects would help — but lack the time and funding to implement them, and feel constrained by mandated curriculum.

But the biggest disconnect is that most K-12 school administrators don’t see this problem. Here’s the percentage of each category that gave a passing grade to their school for preparing students for jobs of the future.

K-12 Administrators: 57%
Teachers: 47%
Parents: 47%
Students: 23%

This perception gap is a crucial indicator that we are not only failing our students in providing the relevant, inquiry-based, hands-on science education they hunger for, but that we are fooling ourselves about it. What’s worse?

Full report (PDF)


5 Replies to “The disconnect in science education”

  1. As a Science educator, I am not surprised by the finding. In the past, my academic class has been rigorous by tough labs and lots of work. Recently, I have changed to project based learning and inquiry methods. Some students love this as it is more exciting and not boring. It is tough in the fact that students are not critical thinkers and need practice. We are really seeing them change as learners.

    I know there is push back by many parents as this is not the same class they have known in the past (very small town.) They cannot see learning unless it means tons of worksheets, etc. They may want to see something different in the classroom, but they are not sure what that looks like. Several of the top students I believe are also threatened by this change. They excel at school as they know it. We are podcasting notes in order to spend more time on meaningful activities in class. The other academic instructor collaborates with me on these activities as well.

    We were both observed by our Assistant Superintendent. Though he admits that we are well versed in pedagogy, he is concerned about content. That in itself is a problem. There is too much to cover in one year just using lecture and drill activities. We have focused on essential questions that tie big ideas together and use them to focus our instruction and the planning of activities. The idea that we can discuss everything is ridiculous as the doubling of science knowledge occurs every 3 years. Tough to keep up, provide the basics for understanding, and stretch to new topics, etc. We are working harder than we ever have before. The perception of administration as well as parents is a big problem. I would not characterize myself as one of those educators believing we were doing a good job. How do we convince others?

  2. Wow, Louise, this is such a VIVID snapshot of the rewards and challenges of the move to a more authentic learning experience. The perception of others is a huge problem – hopefully as they see what the kids can produce, things will slowly change.

  3. I think that much of the problem us 1) state testing and 2) students trying to have the highest GPA. The few students who are true learners are generally ridiculed for how they question and work through material. It is unfortunate. If people could be learners (instead of working through tasks), then the perception of what school should be would change. Even removing the grade “penalty” by using mastery has not made much of a difference. My son is a struggling academic student (he maybe should be in general classes). His grades are not high in biology but he knows a lot and can think. He sees it and so do some other students. Perhaps this can change over time if we can get more parents and students to demand it and more teachers to embrace it.

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