The science education crisis needs a focus on K-6 classrooms


By my counting, we have three kinds of science education crises in the USA.

  1. A ridiculously low degree of scientific literacy across all socioeconomic segments. People are readily duped by irrational arguments about food safety, infectious disease prevention, the changing climate and the origin of species. (Is this a new problem? That’s debatable. Is it problematic? Ask state employees who live in areas about to go underwater who are told to not mention climate change. Ask vaccinating parents whose children have been exposed to Measles or Whooping Cough.)

  2. The second one is the lack of production of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) professionals in the USA. I recognize it’s common for US grad students and postdocs to demonstrate concern that we are actually overproducing scientists and engineers in the US. While we are not equipped to hire huge numbers of theoretical community ecologists anytime soon, there are a bunch of people out there claiming we need more STEM professionals. Who is right? I’m not a labor market expert, though we do need more and better science in the USA, and I don’t know if the best jobs will be found here.

  3. The third crisis is the need to diversity STEM in the USA. Most of these fields are still the domain of white men. This is obviously unfair and inequitable. It also keeps us from recruiting talent from the whole population. Even in the fields in which women are receiving degrees in relatively high proportion, there is an overt and systemic bias that has prevents their professional advancement. Blacks and latinos — both men and women — are underrepresented in the sciences, and their advancement is also blocked by systemic barriers at pretty much every level.

I don’t know how much an improvement in science education can fix Crisis 1. Big efforts can fix Crisis 2, if it’s really a crisis. Crisis 3 is huge, and any scientist who doesn’t see this as a major priority for change is, well, I just can’t even.

I don’t have to have a daughter to recognize that gender equity is long overdue and still a long ways away. I don’t have to be a member of an underrepresented group, or teach at a minority-serving institution, to recognize that we need to fix many kinds of ethnic-based inequities. White guys are a smallish fraction of the US population, and our fraction is shrinking. If we want to have more scientists, and have the best ones, then we’ve got to bring everybody into the fold. If you can’t get on board with that, well, I just can’t even.

So, let’s agree that we need more scientists, especially women and people from underrepresented groups. What’s the biggest bottleneck, the biggest challenge? What do we do?

The obvious starting point is to take action within our own milieu. In your university. In your kid’s school district. In your family. In your laboratory. In your professional society. In your editorial board. In your colloquium schedule. That’s the start.

But we’re not going to get anywhere unless we have enough college students coming to us who want to become scientists.

The talent pool is incredibly deep, but the interest pool is shallow. NSF and NIH are trying really really hard to support and sustain the smallish fraction of students from underrepresented groups who are STEM majors. Many summer undergraduate research programs (REU) are overwhelmed with applications but don’t even get enough applicants from underrepresented groups to meet the expected benchmarks for representation. All over the USA, REU programs are fighting over a too-small number of minority REU applicants. The problem isn’t the opportunities for college students, it’s that there aren’t enough students who are prepared to take advantage of those opportunities. (And, it’s sometimes difficult to get them to take these chances when they are presented.)

We just don’t have enough undergrad science majors from underrepresented groups working towards becoming STEM professionals. Among those we do have, the route the route towards becoming a STEM professional is a little less, well, secure. And it can be alienating. While we can and should change what happens in college, it looks like the big problem is not that part of the pipeline subway. We just don’t have people in the subway in the first place.

There’s no shortage of anecdotal and peer-reviewed evidence to indicate that what happens in elementary and middle school is important in shaping the trajectory of kids who go on to become scientists. If you ask STEM professionals when they got excited about science, it happened when they were kids.

If you want to grow scientists, you need to get kids excited about science while they are in elementary school.

This sounds really simple. I think it might just be that simple.

The problem isn’t in the diagnosis, it’s in the execution.

I’m pretty sure that NSF, NIH and so many others realize that this is problem. But they don’t have the jazillion dollars available to them to make sure that all elementary teachers are doing great science with their kids. We aren’t training our teachers this way. We aren’t recruiting elementary teachers who want to teach science. Throughout the US, our school districts are not built to teach kids the fun and excitement of science.

Why does science not happen that much in elementary classrooms in the US? I see two central causes at work, at least in the school districts with which I’m familiar in Pasadena and Los Angeles.

Problem 1. The emphasis on high-stakes testing in English and Math as a barometer of success has caused schools to drop most of the other cool stuff that kids need, want, and enjoy.

Problem 2. When teachers are empowered, they can bring good things into the contemporary public elementary classroom, such as art, history, science, engineering, field trips. However, takes both strong principals, with the support of the district, as well as teachers who are well prepared and highly motivated.

The fundamental root of these problems is the poverty resulting from income inequality. I’ll leave that to Paul Krugman’s blog.

Everybody and their cousin has thoughts about how to fix Problem 1, so I’m not going there. (I’ll just say that I’m hopeful that Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards are able to give principals and teachers the latitude they need to teach the concepts they think are best, in a way they think is best.)

As for Problem 2, not that many elementary-level teachers are both supported for and comfortable with teaching science. Nearly all teachers will recognize its importance, but the teachers who have made the choice to work in high-need schools have more pressing priorities and challenges (to say the least).

Most elementary teachers lack the technical preparation teach science, even to smallish kids. Yes, the teachers meet the requirement to be “highly qualified” by the State of California. But those state requirements for science education for elementary-level teachers are downright pathetically minimal. The science courses required by the state are the same sorry-ass classes that everybody else takes fulfill their general education science requirements. These classes are the lowest priority for science departments.

Our science teachers in elementary schools have as much science training as a business major, or a communications major. Or anybody. The bar is so low. By placing this bar so low, we are telling the teachers that knowing and being able to teach science is not a priority.

While undergraduate scientists-in-training often get the benefit of, you know, doing scientific experiments in laboratories, the classes that K-6 teachers-in-training rarely have the benefit of genuine inquiry. Here and there, these classes might be good. But in general, universities give gen-ed students the short shrift, and I will bet it’s very rare for these classes to contain the kind of hands-on scientific inquiry and curiosity that we want our kids to get in elementary school.

If elementary teachers don’t learn how to do science in their science classes, are we expecting them to get it somewhere else?

If our elementary teachers don’t experience a model of effective science instruction, then how will they be able to teach inquiry-based science instruction effectively on their own?

If our elementary science teachers aren’t overjoyed and excited by science, how well equipped will they be to generate that joy in their students?

If kids go through elementary school year after year in classes that don’t provide opportunities for real inquiry and the fun of science, then how can we expect them to show up excited about science in high school, or with an interest majoring in science in university?

No matter how much we fix the university, we can’t create systemic change unless we change the system. Starting with the kids, and their schools, and how kids are taught science. There are many people and many groups focused on providing great science to kids in our public elementary schools, but they don’t have everybody pushing along with them. There’s the resistance of inertia, lack of budget, and lack of proximate incentives.

As university people, it’s our job to focus on our students. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that by supporting our students, that we are doing everything that is needed to fix systemic inequities in the access to STEM careers. That involves working with the kids and their teachers, and doing what we can to get them excited about and doing science before they reach our campuses.

Of course, our science education crises are made from a number of intertangled pieces. If we’re just working to fix the “science” part of science education, we will end up falling short of our goal. It feels silly to point out the obvious fact that at the center of science education, and a system can’t do science education well unless we do education well. But there it is.

4 thoughts on “The science education crisis needs a focus on K-6 classrooms

  1. You’re right…education is the key, and yet it does not seem to be something valued by most at any level…it’s something taken for granted…”need to learn something? Just learn it, barriers to that no longer exist…you can read, right?” (if only it were that simple).

    As for the postdocs and PhDs who say there’s an oversupply…we are right. There are powerful interests on all sides that seem to have an interest in the status quo: keep labor costs low for smart people…private sector, academia both agree on that (& young people/early career scis get to see the effects). It is also true that it’s oversupply relative to funding/demand right now.

    As for diversity…it is a huge problem. And I am not sure how I can best help with it. One way is by leaving academia; a job I don’t get is one a member of an underrepresented group might get (esp. true given the competitiveness of academic jobs). But then I also need a job…and it’s quite unclear what field I might go to where I add to diversity. I can be as aware of the problem as possible, but simply by existing, I am not adding to the solution. Again, it’s a problem of lack of supply of jobs in the system presently, but it’s something I think about.

  2. I think this is very important and I may eventualy get into teaching science, but frankly I don’t thnk i’d thrive in a traditional k-6 setting. Neither would the friends i know who are passionate AND creatively knowlegeble about science. I’ve tried occasionally in a few settings, and it wasn’t so satisfying. My experiences were that grade school and even some science/nature museum/bot gardens etc… were either too medieval or dumbed down for me. that might not be the best description..

    one problem is that these are NOT sexy jobs. our culture does NOT value this work.

    On a side note, my science geek friends and i, did not by and large get turned onto science, nature, math in school, we got it somewhere else. I probly got it from my dad, then science fiction, then independant reading. Frankly i can’t imagine the massive changes i would have to execute in a standard school setting to reproduce the adventurees i had.

    Who knows maybe the growing maker movement can help.

    Another issue, on the diversity angle, came up recently in a discussion. An acquantance of mine posted an article describing how there is an antipathy and mistrust between various minority populations and science due perhaps to at least 2 things:

    1) Science is seen as white and male

    2) Science is seen as a collaborator with government or big business or in general with the people in power. So right away there’s gonna be no chance to even be motivated to explore science as something else.

    This got me thinking about how it was that as a kid i got a chance to see and imagine myself as being part of the world of science when i was very young, way before i started imagining that there were conspiracies among the people in power who were controling science against me, and why it was that kids in other socio-ethnic groups didn’t get that chance.

    (i wish there a way to link discussions on two different social media!)

  3. In Australia the CSIRO (govt science agency) runs an awesome scheme called Scientists (and Mathematicians) in Schools. They match scientists up with school classes in their local area. I don’t know if this sort of thing exists in other countries, but if not, agitating to get it started would be a good thing to do. If it does exist in your country, then consider getting involved.

    As an example of what these schemes can do: last year, I did an experiment with 12/13 year old girls about how to keep your Christmas tree alive the longest. The girls chose the treatments, set up the replicates, gathered data on photosynthetic health using a pocket-PAM over a month, did the analyses themselves (I explained t-tests and showed them how to do one in Excel, and they ran with it from there – I didn’t even touch the keyboard during the data analyses!), and they wrote a paper which is currently in review at the Australian Journal of Botany (it does read a little differently to your average science paper since 12/13 year olds wrote it!). They got in the Sydney Morning Herald too: A very positive experience for everyone.

  4. Great post! I think creating more opportunities for K-6 teachers to pick up extra training and professional development in the sciences is key. In Los Angeles, check out the Key to the Sea program that provides marine conservation and education development for teachers. Would love to see more programs that integrate educator development.

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