The New York Times published a special Education Issue last week, “Learning What Works” in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. The articles, collectively, set out an array of recommendations from top experts. They include:
- Increase attention to ideation and creativity
- Make teaching more immersive
- Increase teacher training and teacher pay
- Develop and distribute better instructional materials
- Encourage mentoring by outside experts or college/graduate students
- Provide the history and the context for science
- Dedicate time to applying ideas and practical invention
- Raise curriculum and testing standards
These are all good and important. So, let's go! There are many priorities out there but STEM education must be in the highest classification. We know from the scores obtained by the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment that 15-year-old students in the U.S. perform about average in reading. Average isn’t great but, when it comes to the math and science scores, it’s practically outstanding. Out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 17th in science and 25th in math. (The 2012 results will be released at the end of this year.)
But there are barriers to success even within the science teaching community. Dr. Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education, said that roughly 20 percent to 25 percent of the nation’s biology teachers don’t believe in evolution and subscribe to creationist views. Teaching evolution and/or climate change in schools has been hotly debated by legislatures and school boards in states including Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas. These boards should embrace and promote, not disparage and reject, the facts.
Students receive at least some science as part of a required curriculum. But what happens when they arrive at home? Are the lessons in science class reinforced or refuted? In a 2012 poll by Gallup only 15% of U.S. citizens believe humans evolved without any intervention from God. Thirty-two percent said God guided the evolutionary process and 46% said God created humans in their present form. (Seven percent had no opinion.)
And what do the students hear from those in power? Rather than lead the country through and away from false and flawed ideas, a number of our elected leaders are cheerfully, bombastically, pulling the country backward. In Congress, the House Science Committee hardly holds to its title. Rep. Paul Broun (GA) fumed, “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell.” Former Science Committee member Todd Akin (MO) famously opposed abortion for rape victims, in part, because “if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Rep. Dana Rohrabacker (CA) said recently, “Global warming is a total fraud” and dismissed global warming as a plot to institute a “global government.” His suggestion that “dinosaur flatulence” could explain historic climate change patterns was also notable. Rep. James Sensebrenner (WI) similarly amped up the conspiracy theorists when he said climate change theory was a “massive international scientific fraud.” Rep. Ralph Hall (TX) also charged that climate change is the product of a global conspiracy of scientists and told the National Journal in 2011 that he didn’t believe in a human influence on global warming because “I don’t think we can control what God controls.”
This competition between God and science is a false construct and distracts us from the issues. In his book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (2006), Dr. Francis Collins, director the National Institutes of Health, wrote, “the principles of faith are, in fact, complementary with the principles of science.” He went on, “there is no conflict in being a rigorous scientist and a person who believes in a God who takes personal interest in each one of us. Science’s domain is to explore nature. God’s domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science.” Not believing in a “personal God,” Albert Einstein, nonetheless said, "Science without religion is lame. Religion without science is blind."
The task of increasing our STEM preparedness goes well beyond the confines of schools. It’s immensely complex, opposing interests are deeply entrenched, and will take much longer and cost much more than most people realize. It’s not a problem that can be addressed by a five or ten year plan. It will take a generational blueprint that needs to be comprehensive, cohesive and well capitalized in order to see a return on the investment.
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