What Science Education in the U.S. Needs, Part III

As promised, here’s Part III of our mini-series connecting what HSI does to changes educators, experts, and students would like to see in our science education system in the U.S. Part I and Part II make similarly cool connections, so be sure not to miss them. The gist of this series of posts is that each one takes on quotes excerpted from a Claudia Dreifus article in the New York Times in which she asked 19 individuals with an interest and stake in science education in the U.S. what they would like to see change in this field.

Of the 19 respondents, we thought 12 had something pretty profound to say that supports the approach Headwaters is taking to improve science education. The other 7? Mainly they’re talking about how to attract more high quality science teachers to the profession, which is definitely something we support and believe is important in the quality of science education American children receive.

So let’s hear from some of those experts!

Maria Klawe, computer scientist; president, Harvey Mudd College.DSC_6052

“I wish that STEM educators at whatever level would help all students understand that hard work and persistence are much more important to scientific success than natural ability.”

We couldn’t agree more in the value of emphasizing work ethic over “talent.” We have personally seen educational scenarios in which students feel (even if it’s not the educator’s intent) pigeon-holed as “capable” or “not capable” within a traditional science classroom. One thing we love about our Student Driven Research protocol is the emphasis on problem solving, and the lack of stress it assigns to getting the “right” answer. When scientific research is done well, the “right” answer(s) aren’t obvious until they’re discovered, and that’s the experience our students have.

Paulo Blikstein, director, Transformative Learning Technologies Laboratory, School of Education, Stanford University.

“We’d like kids to learn how to solve hard problems and what it takes to pull off a complex endeavor, how to plan, collaborate, fail and not give up. In other words, we want them to see what science and math can do when they are used by a creative mind.”

There is an important concept at the heart of Bilkstein’s quote, which is that students need to do all the things that professional scientists do to prepare for doing longer, more rigorous scientific research later in life. Most important among those things? Failing. The public’s view of science doesn’t include a significant quantity of failure. We only read about finished-state research and aren’t really made aware of the steps that the scientists took to arrive at those results and conclusions–undoubtedly involving a healthy dose of failure. Science calls for lots of trial and error. Learning to incorporate the lessons of failure into future designs is one of the core lessons that students get from HSI programs, and that’s something we’re very proud of. From our experience, those moments of failure are so powerful as learning experiences because students recognize their own failures, they learn from them, and they understand how healthy and essential failure is in scientific research.

Michael F. Summers, biochemist; Howard Hughes Medical Investigator.

“[W]e take about a dozen high school and college students into my lab each year, assign them an older mentor, train them in biochemical techniques and give them real problems to work on that the senior people need solved for our ongoing AIDS research.

I recently had a group of youngsters who were looking at the genetic material of human immunodeficiency virus. They were given an experiment that the senior people thought was important to do as a control, but that the adults thought they knew the answer to already. The students obtained surprising data, and the senior people changed their research. When things like that happen, the kids begin self-identifying as scientists. They stop thinking that a science career can be theirs 10 years from now — an eternity to an adolescent. They think of themselves as scientists, now.”

Summers’ program sounds tremendous because it’s offering students hands-on science experience at a critical age. Moreover, it allows students some autonomy in the course of their research. We believe that programs like this, if they could be multiplied by the thousands, would do a lot of good for American science education. HSI takes this concept one step further. We offer students a framework that allows them to ask relevant questions that guide their research–removing the sense that they’re doing someone else’s research. We feel that this is one of the great successes of our programs, giving student the full experience of doing science research, while helping them manage some of the big challenges and responsibilities that come with such freedom.

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