President Bush’s recent plan to increase funding for science and math programs in public schools met with a rare burst of bipartisan support in the Senate. What effect his initiative will have in the classroom is another matter altogether.
As part of a larger effort to increase the competitiveness of American industry through scientific innovation, Bush is calling for an additional $380 million to go towards education initiatives, including hiring thousands of new teachers for advanced math and science courses.
Two recent scientific analyses suggest that improving America’s scientific literacy may take more than simply funneling a few extra bucks into the same old programs. The findings—presented this weekend at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in St. Louis, MO—highlighted the need to teach more effectively by emphasizing the history of scientific discovery and getting students interested in pursuing their own research.
A way to improve science teaching is to tell the stories behind the facts, says Ursula Goodenough, professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis. As part of a team of six scientists, Goodenough reviewed the science curriculums in all 50 states, concluding that teachers need to emphasize the historical narrative of science and focus more on interdisciplinary connections.
“Students go into science classes and hear about cells one day and atoms another day, but lack any opportunity for integrating these understandings into larger contexts,” she said.
By changing the way educators teach and weaving together various fields into a coherent picture of scientific discovery, Goodenough believes schools can do a better job of keeping students interested.
“Studies have shown that humans learn best when information is packaged in the form of a story,” she said, “But the historical sciences—cosmology, evolutionary biology and Earth science—exist independently in their own domains. There is no linkage.”
In the second study, Harvard professor Philip M. Sadler and Robert H. Tai of the University of Virginia examined the factors that lead to success in college science courses. They surveyed 18,000 students in introductory classes in biology, chemistry and physics at colleges nationwide about their past exposure to the fields. Although Advanced Placement (AP) courses, which are administered by the College Board, are among the toughest science courses available to public high school students, the survey found little evidence that taking AP classes significantly improved performance in college.
“There’s some advantage to taking AP courses,” Sadler said. “It’s just not as large as the College Board claims.”
Less surprisingly, Sadler also discovered that fluency in mathematics is a major predictor of later scientific success, as is laboratory experience, but only when students don’t know the results of experiments beforehand. He worries that favoring AP programs would cost other upper-level science classes—many of which allow students to conduct independent research projects and read published papers.
“In AP classes, ‘teaching to the test’ sometimes precludes the sort of individual research students do in second-year physics and chemistry,” said Sadler. “I would be happy if increased funding was used to support these other options, as well as AP-brand courses.”
Originally published February 20, 2006