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These are the years when you learn to think.

I have a profound admiration for Carl Zimmer.  But this week when I read his blog post, An Open Letter to Science Students and Science Teachers, my admiration exploded into a limitless universe.  In his essay he addresses the regular flow of emails he receives from students requesting assistance with their science projects.  Where assistance most often refers to providing the answer in a tidy package that the student can submit to their teacher.   

Zimmer questions the usefulness of these assignments, encourages teacher’s oversight on communications and advises students to train themselves toward autonomy.  ”These are the years when you learn to think,” he says.  

Take the time to read the post and the 99 comments that accompany the post.  It will really give you an idea of the state of education for this tech native generation.   

When did we stop wanting to learn?  Do we believe it is futile to learn how a technology functions because it is changing so rapidly?  

This booklet was published in 1940 by the public relations department of General Motors.  In order to convey to the public how a headlamp works they produced a 32 page document that explained the electromagnetic spectrum and refractive index.

Do you know how a diode works?  Do you think GM would feel compelled to teach you solid state chemistry to help you understand?  Is your mechanic the one who should worry about that?  When did we stop wanting to learn?       

Why My Children Have a Better Chance at a STEM Career Than Yours

When my younger son was 3 yrs old his preschool teachers sent home a note saying she was impressed he knew he lived on the planet Earth.  My husband laughed, “You mean you didn’t tell them you live on Jupiter or Saturn.”  The 3 year old responded, “No Daddy, those planets are made of gas; you would fall right through.” 

I have two boys, a couple years apart, whose Grandparents live in Cape Canaveral, Florida.  Because of this my older son had an obsession with the Saturn V rocket.  A couple of books on space, hours and hours of rereading popular passages, and apparently the three year old picked up a few things. 

As an aside, I now know more then I ever wanted to about the rocket.  The command modular, the lunar modular, which is jettisoned when and what orbit they take.  Watching Appollo 13 has brand new meaning for me.     

My children aren’t boy geniuses.  They simply have an advantage that a typical attendant of public schools might not have – regular exposure to science. 

Parents with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers share their experience with their children leaving nonSTEM off-spring at a disadvantage, because, as the research shows, our public school system is failing when it comes to math and science.

My children are in the Pennsylvania public school system.  A state ranked 12th in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) Mathematics Score, 21st in the NAEP Science score and 42nd in average SAT Mathematics scores.  

I am a product of public schools.  I believe in public education.  The social depth that public education provides is important to my children’s development.  But as an educator, a science educator, I think public schools are doing math and science a serious disservice. 

Half of my children’s school day is spent on reading and writing.  Math gets one hour of their time-16%.  Science comes in two month aliquots.  Depending on the time of year, 8% of their day is either spent on science, social studies, or health.    It is the same amount of time allotted to Recess and Lunch to give you an idea of its significance. 

A document produced by the National Science Foundation in 1978 titled, Case Studies in Science Education echoes today’s truths from 40 years ago.  One of the report’s general observations: “Nationally we found that science education was being given low priority, yielding to increasing emphasis on basic skills (reading and computation).”

The 1978 report is an inviting read.  It contains interviews from teachers and administrators from 11 sites around the country.  Their candor captures the essence of fruitful science education. 

One elementary school in the study had a portable building, filled with animals, where science was taught.  The science teacher’s educational philosophy is poignant.  “When a child asks how a bird stands on a wire, a more reasonable answer can be found from holding a bird and observing, than from any amount of verbal explanation by a teacher.  I try not to give a child an answer.  The question means curiosity and that means opportunity for learning – not for getting what’s in me into him.”

As a nation we seem to understand that the motivation for science learning comes from performing experiments, but we have broken that down to its most basic scaffolding.  Stoking curiosity seems to have been forgotten. 

At the elementary school my children attend science sits in a box.  When time for science opens in their schedule, the box comes out and experiment kits are distributed.  In second grade the topic was soil.  The kits taught the children about soil like this:  What happens when you smear sand on paper?  What happens when you smear clay on paper?  What happens when you smear hummus on a paper?  Can’t children make these observations while packing mud pies or playing on the beach?  Then they have to draw detailed illustrations – of sand.  The kit is intended to fill a couple months on the calendar so the uninspiring experiments go on and on, for weeks.  

We live in Pennsylvania for goodness sakes, take them to a farm.  Or have a farmer drive his tractor to the school, there are probably six farms in a 10 mile radius.  Let the kids climb on the tractor and then have the farmer show the students why sand and clay are important to his crops.  They might not remember an ounce of detail, but the experience will never leave them.       

Remember when you were younger and an adult put you in their lap while they drove – around the cul-de-sac, into the driveway?  You couldn’t reach the pedal but you were quite comfortable with the steering wheel.  You griped it in both hands and experienced maneuvering the car.  There was no pressure, you were a kid; it was fun.  At sixteen the familiarity you had with the wheel assuaged the anxiety of learning to drive.  Science education in our nation’s schools is like handing a young child the driver’s manual.     

My least favorite part about being a scientist has got to be writing in a notebook.  I’m well aware of its importance, but if I had to spend as much time as my kids do writing down observations I would shoot myself.   Children aren’t encouraged to be police officer by focusing on report filling.   They don’t want to be physicians because they learned how stimulating it is to deal with the bureaucracy of insurance companies.  Why do children need ten worksheets on chrysalis illustrations?  It’s an oval! 

When you teach science in primary school with the intention of retention you risk turning off future scientists.   A Houston teacher for the 1978 NSF case study sums it up perfectly, “They’ll forget much but re-learn it so much easier later.  They may not fully appreciate Newton’s Law now but I don’t force it.  Later they’ll recognize having heard of it so it won’t be a total shock.  They may only recall that objects behave differently in outer space and on earth.”

My dad bought my oldest a circuit set.  It is full of resistors, capacitors and integrated circuits.  Using two AA batteries you can light a bulb, power a fan, or sound an alarm.  From playing with it for an hour he gained a basic understanding of the physics of electricity, but I doubt he is aware of that.  “Mommy is this science?” he asked.  When I affirmed that it was he said, “Why don’t we ever do any fun science like this at school?”   Indeed?