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Science education demands new approach

Sustained and creative efforts could – and must – strengthen science education in the United States, Thomas O’Brien told Harpur Forum members during his Jan. 11 presentation on campus.

The talk, titled “Science and Mathematics Teacher Education for the 21st Century: Problems and Possibilities,” was the highlight of the Harpur Forum’s annual faculty spotlight luncheon.

“This is an area that is truly critical to the future of the United States,” President Lois B. DeFleur said while introducing O’Brien, an associate professor of education in the School of Education and Human Development.

She noted that funding for education and research must increase so that America can remain competitive globally and retain its reputation as a world leader in science and technology. To that end, DeFleur said, she welcomes Gov. George E. Pataki’s recent proposal to offer free SUNY or CUNY tuition to students who go on to teach math or science in the state.

O’Brien certainly agrees more funding would help improve science, math and engineering education, but he said America’s problems in this area go beyond a lack of money. One central issue is that the general public must be better informed.

The “habits of mind” developed in science classes are an important part of intellectual development even for those who go on to unrelated careers, he said. If students followed a rigorous high school science curriculum they’d have the option of going on to study related fields in college. As it stands now, many have essentially closed that door before they’re 18.

It comes down to seeing science as a fundamental aspect of cultural literacy, O’Brien said. “Science just gives you an enriched view of the world,” he said, “and in that sense it really is the greatest humanity.”

He noted that these ideas about equity and excellence have been made since the founding of our country and he reviewed highlights of important moments in the history of science education.

That timeline revealed that Americans have addressed science education in fits and starts, giving it high importance during the space race, for instance, and then more or less ignoring it once we had “won.”

“If we want to make education work in our country, it’s not a matter of responding episodically,” O’Brien said.

The problems he sees in science education include:

• Demographics. “Master teachers” of the baby boom generation are retiring and there’s no good plan to use them as mentors for young, inexperienced educators. Also, there’s a widening gap between the socioeconomic background of teachers and their students.

• High attrition of beginning teachers. More than 30 percent of new teachers leave the field, in part because of inadequate preparation and mentoring.

• The lack of a coordinated, research-informed approach to K-16 science education. With 15,000 independent school districts, it’s tough to effect change.

• The inertia of pedagogical practice. Teachers generally teach the way they learned.

An integrated approach to improving science education could also address other national issues, O’Brien said. For instance, if students understood more about hybrid technology, there could be more innovations in that field and it would help our environment and economy.

O’Brien’s talk wasn’t entirely focused on the negative, however. Among the promising things he sees happening:

• Development of K-12 standards for students.

• Development of new standards for teacher certification and recertification.

• An emerging “science of science teaching.”

• Increased recognition of teachers’ lifelong learning needs.

• More funding for mutually beneficial K-16 partnerships.

“Education isn’t a problem to be solved,” he said. “It’s an investment for our country.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08