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Children like science. Any parent who has ever had to answer the most important word in a child's vocabulary - "Why? - knows that. "Mom, why do trees lose their leaves?" "Dad, what kind of rock is this?" "How does a cricket make noise?" "Why did dinosaurs die?"

But something happens to that natural curiosity between the time a child enters kindergarten and when he graduates from high school. In that span of time, when the schools should be turning youngsters onto the wonders of scientific discovery, many students tune out.The newest Science Report Card, released this week by the U.S. Department of Education, points out an important reason why interest in science wanes as the years in school accumulate: Science education has not been identified as a special priority in more than half of the nation's elementary schools and two-thirds of its high schools.

As a result, the report said, "a disproportionately low percentage" of the 20,000 students assessed in a nationwide survey of fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders knows enough about science or have the ability to accomplish straightforward tasks requiring application of thinking skills.

Fewer than half of the high school seniors, for example, demonstrated the knowledge and reasoning abilities to interpret data in tables and graphs and to evaluate and design science experiments.

Actually, these students couldn't be expected to perform well. Incredibly, about one-fourth of the seniors taking science classes said they never did experiments in their science classes. Almost 60 percent said they never worked on a science project that took a week or more. The students in the three surveyed grades reported that classroom lectures and the textbooks were the mainstay of their science education.

Science teaching that is dull, inept and devoid of the experiments that bring science to life may explain why 17- and 18-year-olds don't perform well or don't care about science.

Education Secretary Lamar Alexander said the Bush administration recognizes the needs for a national commitment to science education. It has targeted $2.1 billion for science education - most of it to be used for teacher training.

Utah has made some progress in this area. The University of Utah's Graduate College of Education has sponsored intensive in-service seminars for science and math teachers. For the past five years, the State Office of Education has worked toward having more teachers endorsed in the academic areas in which they teach.

But somehow Utah and the nation need to find ways to pull more bright college science majors into teaching. That's difficult when lucrative salaries beckon from industry. More ways to attract scientists who have worked in industry into the classroom must be found. Utah's new alternative certification program is a good start.

Educators need to re-examine the science curriculum in their schools, making certain that their students aren't being short-changed. Parents, even those who consider their scientific knowledge marginal, must encourage their youngsters to pursue scientific endeavors.

This election year, voters will hear a lot from the candidates on how America must keep its technological edge in a global economy. That won't happen without a meaningful effort to give the nation's children a good science education.