The problem has been well documented: the American public’s grasp of scientific processes and principals is lagging behind the rapid growth of an ever-more scientific and technological world. Decades of tests have shown that American students from elementary to high school are falling behind students of other industrialized nations in math and science literacy across a broad range of disciplines.1 American universities are churning out more and more international students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields, while their American classmates are moving increasingly toward other areas of study. A strong contingent of the population does not think evolution, the unifying theory of biology, can explain biodiversity and claims that human-caused climate change is either a hoax or a natural cyclical process. In all, many basic scientific concepts from molecules to planetary orbits are poorly understood.2

We also know the important advantages of being scientifically literate. First, there is basic knowledge of earth systems and an understanding of how scientists acquire information. Knowledge of both makes it easier to navigate the mountains of information and misinformation regarding key issues. Greater scientific literacy leads to a more sophisticated workforce and leads to better employment opportunities for individuals in an increasingly technological job market. Then there is the matter of democracy. Public policy is set by citizens, and increasingly those policy issues have a basis in science. The prosperity and health of an industrialized democracy rely on the ability of its citizens to openly discuss policy regarding science and technology issues and to make informed choices on matters such as genetically modified foods, climate change, and land policy.

Almost everything today is affected by advances and discoveries made in science. Having a grasp of basic concepts and scientific procedures makes one capable of handling the challenges and solutions of the twenty-first century. So how do we get from here to there; or better yet, from where we are to where we want to be?

The Most Powerful Instrument for Change

In 2000, the National Commission on Math and Science Teaching released a report on how to curtail America’s declining performance in science and math education, ominously titled Before It’s Too Late. After reviewing the academic literature about the curriculum, economics, policy, and performance of math and science public education, the commission came upon a simple idea to alter the nation’s current course: “The most powerful instrument for change,” it declared, “is teaching itself.”3

A decade later, academic studies and national reports reinforce the importance of the teacher in academic success.4 Yet 69 percent of US public school students in fifth to eighth grade are taught math by a teacher without a degree or certificate in math. That number rises to 93 percent in the physical sciences.

A 2010 report by the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology focuses on this discrepancy. It recommends the recruitment and training of 100,000 STEM teachers while creating 1,000 STEM-focused schools over the next decade.5 Similar ideas have been floated before, with little money to back them up. But attention to the education problem is high (with outlets like The New York Times, NBC, and the much talked about documentary Waiting for “Superman” reporting on the issue), and the Obama administration has budgeted funding that it hopes will lead to reforms and incentives in teaching.

That funding is the US Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, which awards grants to states for education innovation, improvement in student outcome, and preparation for college and careers. The program emphasizes recruiting and developing effective teachers and getting rid of ineffective ones as well as focusing on STEM course study in public education. Thus states could use awarded funds to train STEM teachers and create STEM-focused schools. Funds from the $4 billion program have been doled out to 11 states and the District of Columbia. The Obama administration requested an additional $1.35 billion in the 2011 budget to continue the program and spur further reforms and innovation in other states.

Meanwhile, programs at the university level are supplying secondary schools with new teachers who have math and science backgrounds. Started in 1997 at the University of Texas in Austin, UTeach allows students obtaining math and science degrees to pursue a teaching certificate at the same time, with little additional cost and with many students acquiring both in four years. The program at Texas graduates more than 70 teachers each year and has been recognized for its teacher preparation reform by the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences. UTeach is currently replicated at 21 universities.

Even with the success of programs like UTeach, however, the current shortage of strong math and science teachers is expected to grow in the coming years, according to Maya Agarwal, project director for Opportunity Equation, an initiative that promotes math and science education. Large numbers of teachers leave the profession within their first five years, especially in poor and urban schools, and close to half of America’s 3.5 million teachers are eligible to retire in the next decade.6

Many promising US students opt for careers outside of education due to greater financial incentives and the cultural status other professions provide. Education systems in industrialized nations like Finland and South Korea draw predominantly from the top-tier students—much like financial firms do in America.6 These countries incentivize teaching by funding teacher education, providing rich opportunities for professional growth, granting teachers greater autonomy in the classroom, and giving competitive compensation. Similar incentives in the United States could lure more math and science students into the profession and could retain good teachers while elevating the status of teaching. An example to emulate is Teach for America, which has been successful in making teaching in urban and rural communities attractive to top-tier college graduates.

How Science Works

Both educators and scientists bemoan how science is currently taught. Science education can be characterized by a large curriculum that is heavy on facts, definitions, and conclusions but light on the process of scientific inquiry, said Steve Rissing, an evolutionary biology professor at Ohio State University. This narrow focus leads to too many American students concluding early in their education that STEM subjects are boring, too difficult, or unwelcoming.5

By focusing on data tied to standardized tests to measure student growth and teacher success, No Child Left Behind, signed into law by the Bush administration, causes teaching to further focus on tests rather than overall content. Race to the Top continues to tie funding to students’ success via standardized tests. The emphasis on test scores makes teachers rely on fact- and results-based teaching, leaving little room for innovation and nontraditional ways of teaching science and math. What is lost, say experts, is students’ understanding of science as an exciting, creative, and rewarding process of discovery that addresses the big questions of the universe and life.

“Students need to be informed on how science works,” said Stacy Baker, a high school biology teacher at Staten Island Academy in New York whose Extreme Biology! science blog has received national attention. “I want them to know how a scientist thinks and get a grasp on the scientific mindset so they can apply it when they get older to solve the problems of the future. I’d rather they understand the nature and the process of science than reciting photosynthesis 101.”

Emphasizing the nature and process of science and how to think scientifically will require counteracting the tendency to cover too much material in too little time.7 It will also mean developing more sophisticated assessments that move beyond the true/false or multiple-choice questions common to standardized tests.


Bill Lax / FSU Photo Lab
Will Connors (right), a FSU-Teach student, teaches an honors math class at Leon High School in Tallahassee, Florida, in 2009.

“I think what teachers normally teach is based on what will be assessed,” said Agarwal. “A National Academies report called Taking Science to School talks about four strands of scientific proficiency that every student should have. One is to know, use, and interpret scientific explanations of the natural world. The ‘to know’ aspect is easy and inexpensive to measure and is the most common focus of science teaching in the US. But the other three strands—generate and evaluate scientific evidence, understand the nature of scientific knowledge, and participate in scientific practices and discourse—are critical for scientific literacy and should be taught and assessed more widely.”

The National Research Council is finalizing a conceptual framework for New Science Education Standards for K–12 that incorporates these fours strands. The draft of the framework was released in the summer of 2010. Once the framework is complete, education organizations, states, and key stakeholders will begin a separate but complementary process to develop common standards and implement them nationwide. A promising sign is that new math standards released in 2010 have already been adopted by 41 states, including the District of Columbia.

The Nontraditional Route

The rapid advances in science and technology in recent decades are changing the way people receive information and communicate. Use of multimedia and social media could open up new ways of teaching and presenting science, combating the notion that the subject is boring and difficult. Teachers are beginning to tap into these new methods to connect students to the science of today.

“You have to use a varied approach to reach students,” said Baker. “I spend part of the day doing a combination of activities, a small group assignment, a short video, really coming at it with a bunch of different approaches.”

On Baker’s blog you can find instructions on class labs, posts by students such as “The Invisible Predator of the Depth” and “Why Do Fish Swim in Schools,” and activities and games that allow students to learn while interacting with the material. Many of the posts are littered with commentary from other students and even scientists, allowing for further dialogue and information exchange.

A majority of the public receives their science and technology information from the news media.8 And increasingly, people are turning to the Internet for science news. This can mean navigating a minefield of misinformation. But online sources can also connect readers directly to the source of scientific information, whether academic institutions or government agencies. On the Internet, complicated science subjects can also be easily digested through interactive graphics, animations, and other visual representations, thus reaching a broader audience. A great example is the multimedia reporting done by The New York Times and the New Orleans Times-Picayune about the 2010 Gulf oil spill. An interactive map on The New York Times website tracked the daily position of the oil and the total amount accumulating in the Gulf, from the day the oil rig sank, April 22, until the well was capped over three months later.9

The Internet and social media are also being picked up and used by scientists themselves to communicate directly with the public. As more traditional media outlets like newspapers reduce their science and environmental coverage, scientists and websites dedicated to science and environmental news are providing much-needed coverage, commentary, and overall education.

Scientists’ blogs are providing clear, concise explanations of relevant science while giving readers more personal insight into the world of a scientist. Some of the most popular blogs are RealClimate, with commentary on climate science by climate scientists, and Cosmic Variance, a group blog by physicists and astrophysicists.

Involving the Citizenry

Science education does not solely consist of learning from textbooks and computers in the classroom, and it does not end when one graduates from high school or college. Science is about discovering and explaining the natural world, and some of the most impressionable teaching moments—at any age—occur when we encounter that world firsthand. Hiking in a forest devastated by bark beetle infestation, following a mountain stream to learn the connectivity of hydrologic systems, or sifting through sediment to uncover fossils and rocks deposited millions of years ago are all examples of direct observation of the unfolding realm of science.

“More than anything, [learning about science in the field] gives people a context to the academic information they have been receiving and allows them to apply it in their personal, professional, and academic lives,” said Dave Morris, a field instructor with the Wild Rockies Field Institute.

Programs like the Wild Rockies Field Institute and the various national park institutes and field schools are bringing students and nonstudents into the backcountry of America to engage in scientific and environmental issues. Through such activities the public can directly encounter the majesty of a national park and its wildlife or the impacts that land-use decisions or air and water quality regulation can have on an ecosystem. Such encounters in nature are especially critical as society becomes further removed from the natural world.

Other endeavors are relying directly on citizens’ observations and data to further scientific research. “We must move from simply informing people to involving people,” said Bob Ridky, the US Geological Survey national education coordinator. “To the extent that people can get involved in science, they become advocates for the scientific mission. One example of such active involvement can be seen in what is called citizen science. NASA has citizens who are very informed about the organization’s mission and help monitor certain sectors of the sky. Then you have people who are out in the field recording when the first trees bloom and when certain bird species arrive in an area, and they are very critical to understanding phenology [the study of the timing of plant and animal life cycle events]. This is a natural way for people to keep informed and get a better understanding of science.”

The USA National Phenology Network, Galaxy Zoo, and the North American Amphibian Monitoring Program are just a few of many such ventures. In these cases, citizen observations of plant and animal life-cycle events, the solar system, and amphibian populations are providing much-needed data to scientists and resource managers. Such collaborations are increasing science literacy while contributing to scientific knowledge.

Where We Are Going

The 2010 report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited lists about 50 facts summarizing the current science-literacy situation in the United States. These are some of the most glaring:

  • In 2009, more than 50 percent of US patents were awarded to non-US companies.
  • US consumers spend significantly more on potato chips than the government devotes to energy research and development.
  • In 2000, the number of foreign students studying the physical sciences and engineering in US graduate schools for the first time surpassed the number of American students studying these subjects.
  • For the next five to seven years, the United States, due to budget limitations, will only be able to send astronauts to the Space Station by purchasing rides on Russian rockets.4

The list goes on. But the solutions to these challenges—recruiting more math and science students to education, elevating the status of teaching in order to retain effective educators, emphasizing the nature and process of science in teaching, and involving citizens in scientific endeavors—are already out there, being implemented and tested and revised just like a scientific experiment. What is needed now is a national program—or rather, a national mission, like the Apollo program or the Manhattan Project—for implementing these solutions as widely and as rapidly as possible.

“If we went back about 100 years ago in the history of this country, a lot of people were asking why school is important,” said Sylvester Gates, professor of physics at the University of Maryland and cochair for the 2010 report from the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. “I don’t think people ask that question anymore. Without a basis of sound education, the economic dynamic of this country would be greatly impeded. Well, something has changed in the last ten to 15 years as we look out at the world and see the rising powers of Brazil, China, Russia, and India as well as Europe. It is clear that education and innovation in STEM fields are ever-more important phenomena. To ask, ‘Why do we need more well-trained Americans in these fields’ is to ask, ‘Do we want to continue to have the American Dream and to succeed in the new millennium?’”


Matthew Cimitile

Matthew Cimitile is a freelance science and environmental reporter and also works as a writer for the US Geological Survey Coastal and Marine Science Center in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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