As I watch the graduates parading proudly around my Brooklyn neighborhood, I’ve been thinking a lot about how we handle high-school education in this country. When I attended high school in suburban Maryland, engineering wasn’t considered a subject. We had English, all the sciences, math, music, social studies, even home ec, but engineering was absent. And no, this isn’t one of those “my how times have changed since I was young” stories. Things haven’t changed, at least by much; and that’s not good, given the challenges that lie ahead.
My thoughts are inspired in part by the DiscoverE Summit, sponsored by ASME, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, the National Engineers Week Foundation, and DISCOVER magazine. Back in February I had the pleasure of joining three outstanding K-12 educators from across the country—Javaris Powell, Shella Condino, and Derek Sale—as they were celebrated for their commitment to STEM education (science, technology, engineering, math) and for the extraordinary impact they’ve had on their students.
Javaris, Derek, and Shella all teach in underserved communities. But lack of money and supplies isn’t their most troubling problem. Javaris told me that the most difficult part of his job is breaking through his students’ own stereotypes:
Though attempts to teach creationism (or its twin sister, intelligent design) in the classroom have been struck down in court, these anti-science approaches still influence the teaching of evolution in American schools. Barely more than one-quarter of 926 high school science teachers who responded to a survey published in Science this week unabashedly taught evolution in their classrooms.
Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer of Penn State have been watching this story for years, tracking whether courtroom victories like 2005’s Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District truly freed up teachers to teach evolution without fear. In an early 2008 study, a book, and new results published in Science, the answer is a depressing “no”:
Only 28% of the 926 teachers surveyed, “unabashedly introduce evidence that evolution has occurred and craft lesson plans so that evolution is a theme that unifies disparate topics in biology.” … Most biology teachers belong to the “cautious 60%,” who are “neither strong advocates for evolutionary biology nor explicit endorsers of nonscientific alternatives,” the study says. [USA Today]
It’s not that a wave of creationism is overtaking our biology teachers—just 13 percent of respondents said they advocated that viewpoint. What’s more likely, Berkman and Plutzer say, is a crisis of confidence. Says Berkman:
“The survey left space for [the teachers] to share their experiences. That’s where we picked up a lot of a sense about how they play to the test and tell students they can figure it out for themselves. Our general sense is they lack the knowledge and confidence to go in there and teach evolution, which makes them risk-averse.” [LiveScience]
Last night, in the third State of the Union Address of Obama’s presidency, he began by extolling the need for the country to compete with other rising nations for the jobs of the future (and using some version of his new catchphrase multiple times). The President hit many notes that have science and technology advocates smiling this morning, including his call to turn around yesterday’s sobering statistics about the lack of science proficiency of American students.
The world has changed, Obama told Congress, and the US will only retain its competitive edge over nations like China and India if it invests in a skilled workforce and cutting-edge science and technology: “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.” [New Scientist]
Obama went on to urge parents to get their kids’ priorities straight, and uttered the line that may have tickled science geeks the most:
We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair.
The President also called for more funding for biomedical, renewable energy, and other research to launch a wave of innovation. Obama deemed this our “Sputnik moment,” comparing it to the moment in the late 1950s when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite and the U.S. raced to catch up to and then surpass Soviet space science.
This evening, according to early reports, President Obama will spend part of his State of the Union Address addressing the United States’ “competitiveness.” But ahead of the national pep talk, the Department of Education brought the mood down a notch. The latest results from a federal test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress were released today, and the “Nation’s Report Card” doles out some depressingly low grades for American students’ understanding of basic science.
A third of the nation’s fourth-graders, 30 percent of eighth-graders and 21 percent of 12th-graders are performing at or above the proficient level in science…. Fourth-graders considered proficient are able to recognize that gravitational force constantly affects an object, while advanced students can design an investigation comparing two types of bird food. Proficient 12th-graders are able to evaluate two methods to control an invasive animal species; advanced students can recognize a nuclear fission reaction. [Bloomberg]
At the other end of the spectrum, 28 percent of the 4th graders failed to show a basic understanding of science, and that number was up to 40 percent for high school seniors. That troubles Alan Friedman, a member of the board that oversees the test:
“I’m at least as concerned, maybe even more, about the large number who fall at the low end,” Friedman said. “Advanced is advanced. But basic is really basic. It doesn’t even mean a complete understanding of the most simple fundamentals.” [AP]
Do bees prefer certain colors or shapes in the flowers from which they forage? And can they learn on the fly to go to certain colors or shapes that prove to be more lucrative?
That was the question for the students of Blackawton Primary School in Devon, England. And by devising a clever experiment to find out, these kids became the youngest authors ever to have a study published in a journal of Britain’s Royal Society.
Their paper, based on fieldwork carried out in a local churchyard, describes how bumblebees can learn which flowers to forage from with more flexibility than anyone had thought. It’s the culmination of a project called ‘i, scientist’, designed to get students to actually carry out scientific research themselves. The kids received some support from Beau Lotto, a neuroscientist at UCL, and David Strudwick, Blackawton’s head teacher. But the work is all their own.
The class (including Lotto’s son, Misha) came up with their own questions, devised hypotheses, designed experiments, and analysed data. They wrote the paper themselves (except for the abstract), and they drew all the figures with colouring pencils.
For all the details about this class experiment turned published study, check out the rest of Ed’s post at Not Exactly Rocket Science.
DISCOVER: Wrong By Design (PHOTOS): Beau Lotto, the scientist who helped the Blackawton kids with their bee study, explains the neuroscience of optical illusions.
Not Exactly Rocket Science: Turning Secondary School Children Into Research Scientists
80beats: How Ancient Beekeepers Made Israel the Land of (Milk and) Honey: Imported Bees
80beats: New Caledonian Crows—the Bird Geniuses—Blow Our Minds Again
Image: Wikimedia Commons
This week China unveiled a new supercomputer that’s pretty darn quick.
The Tianhe-1A machine housed at the National Supercomputing Center in Tianjin reportedly works at the rate of 2.5 petaflops (a petaflop being about a thousand trillion operations per second), and reportedly will take the top spot in the rankings of world supercomputers when the people who attend to this list release the new version next month. That will bump the top U.S. machine down to number 2.
Personally, I’m not going to panic until China leapfrogs the United States on the Princeton Review list of top party countries or People Magazine’s sexiest countries in the world. But the announcement brought talk of American unease about being bested by China, and American alarm over China’s growing technological expertise. So is the vague, festering worry about the Chinese supercomputer justified? Let’s look at both sides of the argument.
Putting aside the issue of our wounded national pride, some experts say the real concern is whether the United States has the organization to match what China has done. CNET interviewed Jack Dongarra of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, keeper of the former fastest supercomputer, who called China’s achievement a “wake-up call.”
When Walgreens, the nation’s biggest drugstore chain, announced last week that personal genomics tests would join diet soda and pregnancy tests in its aisles, we gave some reasons that might not be such a great thing. We weren’t the only ones concerned: The Food and Drug Administration said it would investigate the tests, and now Congress is involved. It opened an investigation into personal genomics tests yesterday.
House Committee on Energy and Commerce, chaired by Rep. Henry A. Waxman, just sent out official requests for information to the big three personal genomics companies—23andMe, Navigenics, and Pathway Genomics.
Waxman’s interest was piqued by the move—quickly rescinded last week after the FDA objected—by Pathway to sell its DNA-collection kits in Walgreen’s drugstores. The letters ask the companies for information on, among other things, how they analyze test results to determine someone’s risk for any disease or drug response, and how accurately the DNA tests identify genetic risks [Newsweek].
It seems that the long debate over whether boys are naturally better at math than girls can finally be put to rest. Researchers examined the standardized test scores of over 7 million students in grades 2 through 11, and found no difference in performance between girls and boys.
They also checked to see if a gender gap appeared in high school, as had been shown in a study 20 years ago. But researchers found no difference in scores among today’s students, which they attributed to an increased number of girls taking advanced math classes. “Now that enrollment in advanced math courses is equalized, we don’t see gender differences in test performance,” said [study coauthor] Marcia C. Linn…. “But people are surprised by these findings, which suggests to me that the stereotypes are still there” [The New York Times].