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

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

Science as creative outlet

Science as creative outlet

Today, we’re wrapping up our mini-series of posts on changes to the American science education system. The inspiration for these posts is a 2013 New York Times article in which science writer Claudia Dreifus interviewed 19 educators, experts, and students and asked them what one change they’d make to the nation’s science education system if they could. We thought many of the answers she received pointed toward the approach that Headwaters Science Institute has taken in designing innovative science programs for middle and high school students.

Here goes!

Salman Khan, founder, Khan Academy, which offers free online courses.

Despite the STEM subjects’ being about new ways of thinking and creating new things, many students don’t perceive them as creative. And that’s because, to a large degree, the type of filters we have for these subjects are actually filtering out our most creative people. If I had one wish in this area, it would be to see that creativity and invention became the central focus of STEM courses and that the traditional skills be viewed as what they are: tools to empower creativity.

This means more of the students’ evaluation would be based on a portfolio of what they’ve done, as opposed to a score on a standardized test. This means more of class time would be devoted to exploring and inventing and less to lecturing and quiz-taking.

Obviously we believe that creativity is an important outlet for students learning science. While one of the people interviewed for this story suggested that collaboration between science and art classes would help science education, we believe that Kahn’s ideas above are a better framework for infusing creativity into STEM, and science education more specifically. HSI’s Student Driven Research model gives students ultimate creativity to drive their own research in the direction they think is most interesting. Perhaps one of the most astounding findings we’ve made about teenagers is that they’re perfectly capable of doing high quality research if they know it’s their own creative ideas they’re exploring. That’s not only an exciting and encouraging finding, but it’s all the more reason we need to support this sort of innovative science education–so we can bring it to millions of students in the near future.

Deon Sanders, fifth grader, Lakeland Elementary/Middle School, Baltimore.

I need science and math education to be more about life.

Kids these days live in a world that’s way more influenced by science than we adults could ever have dreamed of when we were children. But one gap that still exists is the difference between the application of science and the understanding of science among the general public. Perhaps the best way to close this gap is to give kids first-hand experience doing the same kind of work scientists do as a regular part of their science education. While they will not have time to learn about how every topic in every branch of science is studied, they will take away an understanding of how real-world problem solving works and how crucial the scientific method is to understanding our world. We believe that doing real scientific research is not an advanced activity for only the most motivated high school and college students, but is actually a fundamental exercise that every student should be exposed to throughout his/her education. That’s how HSI believes science education becomes more about life.


So that’s the end of our mini-series on improving science education in the U.S. We hope you’ve enjoyed the dialogue. If you’d like to join the conversation, we’d love to hear from you. You can use the “Comments” section to tell us the one change you’d like to see made to science education in the U.S. Thanks for sharing your ideas!


Headwaters Science Institute

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

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.

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

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

Alright, here goes Part II of our mini-series, “What Science Education in the U.S. Needs.”SpencerandkidsBMI

In case you missed Part I, you can go back and read it here. Basically, we’re breaking down excerpts from a New York Times article by Claudia Dreifus 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.

We thought many of their answers hinted at, or outright called for, the kind of program that HSI has designed to complement traditional classroom science education with hands-on student research.

If you’d like to see the Times article in its entirety (and you should, it’s full of important insights about science education), it’s linked here. Also, we’d just like to point out that many of the experts, educators, and students represented in this story seem to be grasping for something very much like Student Driven Research. Perhaps the reason they’re struggling to define this thing that American science education is missing is because they don’t know about HSI and our work—yet. We hope that with enough momentum we can start providing some concrete, student-ready, methods that we can offer students directly or provide for science teachers around the country.

And now, on with the post!

Elizabeth Blackburn, Nobel laureate in medicine; biochemist, University of California, San Francisco.

“I think that the thing science educators have to do is teach one important lesson: that science requires immersion. A lot of teaching is about setting up these little projects. But real science happens when you’re really immersed in a question.

Now I’m not talking about general science literacy, which is one thing. I’m talking about science education aimed at developing a new generation of scientists, which is something else. The way we teach it now, with an hour of instruction here and a laboratory class there, it doesn’t allow for what has been my experience: that immersion is the essence of scientific discovery. Science just isn’t something you can do in one-hour-and-a-half bits. Digging deep is what makes people actually productive. If I could change one thing, it would be to build this idea into the curriculum.”

Well, it’s very flattering to think that a Nobel laureate biochemist thinks we need more of what HSI can provide. We think our Student Driven Research protocol is pretty great for many of the same reasons Blackburn wishes more students had a chance to become “immersed in a question.” Plus, we have plenty of ideas about how we can use the 60 or 90-minute blocks available to school students and turn them into times when real science is done. (Teachers, this would be a great time to contact us to ask the obvious question: HOW?)

Carl E. Wieman, Nobel laureate in physics; former associate director, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

“If you have classes where students get to think like scientists, discuss topics with each other and get frequent, targeted feedback, they do better. A key element involves instructors designing tasks where students witness real-world examples of how science works.”

Sounds great! Let’s see how HSI’s protocol stack up with Wieman’s ideas:

“Think like scientists”…check.

“Discuss topics with each other”…check.

“Get frequent, targeted feedback”…check.

“Real-world examples of how science works”…double-check!

Wow, looks like another Nobel laureate is proposing a situation to benefit science education that seems surprisingly like Student Driven Research.

Catherine L. Drennan, professor of chemistry and biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I teach freshman chemistry at M.I.T. Chemistry — and I think this is true of the other sciences, too — is taught with a historical bent. The students learn about how the great discoveries of the past were made. How did people figure out about that electrons were negatively charged particles, for example? The result is that it can seem as if all discoveries are in the past and were made by dead white guys.”

Now, like many of the other pieces we’re highlighting this week on the blog, this excerpt is just a bit of what this speaker has to say overall. If you want the full context, you should read the entire piece.

Still, Drennan’s critique of traditional science education here really resonates with us. Yes, previous discoveries are important, but if teenagers—especially teenagers who don’t come from the “white male” demographic that gets credit for so many famous discoveries—can’t see where they fit into science, they might never give it a chance. Our approach to science education can complement the necessary historical side of science with the sexier curiosity and hands-on discovery side. More importantly, students using our protocols realize that they are capable of making real, interesting, important discoveries themselves using just their native curiosity, a few simple materials, and the scientific method. It’s hard to imagine the average science lecture or “lab” inspiring these epiphanies in students!

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

First, happy Holidays from HSI! In the season of thinking of others and also of resolving to improve our selves, we thought it’d be a great time to revisit a story published by the New York Times in September 2013. In it, Claudia Dreifus, a staff science writer asks 19 American educators, scientists, and students what change they’d like to see in science education in the U.S. You can read the full article here.

In the next week we’re going to be highlighting some of the answers Dreifus got that can be addressed using our Student Driven Research. We think our programs and protocols can take science education in the direction that many experts and reformers are hoping it will go. Our methods are already defined and tested; we are making a difference today, and our impact will be magnified by everyone who has been and will be willing to support HSI.

Alright, here we go with some of the highlights from Dreifus’s NY Times article:

Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“K-12 students need to know the nature of science, how scientists work and the domains and limits of science. Science can’t tell you about God. Or when life begins.”

We know the best way to get students to understand what science is (and what it isn’t) is to have them do real research. HSI believes that this experience works to impart so many critical understandings to students at so many levels that it’s an absolutely critical component of middle- and high-school science education and should become universally incorporated in science curricula around the country.

Freeman A. Hrabowski III, mathematician; president, University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“When I give talks around the country, I often ask the audience: “How many of you knew you were an English/history type or a math/science type by the time you were in 11th grade?” Almost all the hands go up. And, when I ask why, I often hear, “Because I was better in English.”

The question is: How does someone know that at 15 or 16? The way that math or science works in our lives is not always obvious.

We need to create opportunities to excite students about how math and science connect to real life.”

Our Student Driven Research protocol provides a way to expose students to real science at an age when most kids only have the most vague, general sense of what their, say, Biology or Environmental Science class is preparing them for. In our experience, students who realize the power and relevance of scientific research during our programs “get” what it means for a scientist to answer a question. That’s pretty real life!

Mitzi Montoya, dean, College of Technology and Innovation, Arizona State University.

“If I could change one thing about engineering education — well, actually, all education — it would be to center it around solving real problems and making things. In other words, we ought to be creating innovators and inventors at our engineering schools. They need to be able to do something more than solve theoretical problems when they leave us. In other words, they should learn how to be an applied problem solver, which is not the same thing as being a fantastic book-based equation solver.

None of us learned how to do anything well by being talked at — it’s boring. We learn best by doing — getting our hands dirty and making our own mistakes.”

This response pretty much sums up everything we believe about science education and have attempted to address with our programs! Pretty cool that HSI exists in that place where many education visionaries see science education moving sometime in the future.

Oh, and if you thought these examples were exciting, just wait for the next post, coming soon. Thanks for reading!

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

San Francisco University High School Students Research Ash Fallout from the King Fire

Headwaters just completed a super program with students from the San Francisco University High School AP© Environmental Science class. Prompted by the nearby King Fire (which hadn’t been contained yet when they arrived), students studied the ash fallout and its effects in Van Norden Meadow and found some astonishing results about the amount of ash that fell and what that ash does to the pH of the soil and water.

SFUHS field work

Check out these terrific projects the students were able to complete in just three and a half days!

Ash Fallout Presentation

pH of soil ash

How Ash affects the ph of water

Changes in soil pH from the king fire ash

Testimonial from their teacher:

“Headwaters Science Institute allows my students to do their own field research where they develop their own scientific question then follow it through with the development of their project from its design, data collection analysis, to a final oral presentation under peer review. My students experienced a focussed immersion into their project that allowed them to accomplish a large task in just a few days time. The entire experience from lodge life to field research is a rare  opportunity that most high schools cannot offer their students either due to their urban location or the constraints of their daily class schedule. The staff at Headwaters Science Institute works with each research group to help guide them through the challenges of their project, giving each group the opportunity to produce a successful project by the conclusion of their stay.”- Rae Ann Sines