Joanne Manaster shares cutting-edge biology with teachers working on masters degrees at the University of Illinois. In addition to videos and articles at her website, Joanne Loves Science, her work can be found at Scientific American. She always has time for science on twitter @sciencegoddess.
Luann Lee is a National Board Certified high school science teacher in Oregon. She can be found on Twitter as @Stardiverr and now that her dissertation is finished, blogs about science and education here.
On Wednesday, President Obama proposed the STEM Master Teacher Corps, a new program to incentivize teachers who display excellence in teaching science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (or “STEM”). The idea is that 2,500 such teachers would be chosen and positioned in 50 different locations around the country in the inaugural year of the project. According to the White House, these Master Teachers “will receive additional resources to mentor math and science teachers, inspire students, and help their communities grow.” The Master Teacher proposal is a follow-up to his 2010 STEM teacher-training initiative, “Educate to Innovate,” and part of a broader effort to fight the fact that students in the world’s only superpower don’t do so super in science and math, which figure to be so important for our economy in a tech-driven future.
Everyone supports the idea of improving STEM education, but there are some important questions about the program. Most importantly, the criteria for choosing the teachers (and the panel who will determine the criteria) remain unknown, though early hints are indicating that student test scores will be a factor in determining the worthiness of the teachers for this honor, according to information obtained during a White House Twitter chat on July 18, 2012 (the entire chat is here.)
Because the specifics of the program are not yet fully laid out, there’s still an opportunity for scientists, engineers, educators, and parents to speak up and insist that the science taught in schools be meaningful, authentic scientific inquiry as opposed to memorization, drill, and lecture. Ideally, teachers chosen for this honor (and the substantial stipend that accompanies it) must be able to guide students to become masters of inquiry-based, hands-on science. What would a learning environment at the hands of such a master teacher look like?
Derek Lowe is a medicinal chemist who has worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, osteoporosis, and other diseases. He has been writing about drug discovery at In the Pipeline, where this post originally appeared, for more than ten years.
Slate recently published one of those assume-the-conclusions articles up on science and technology education in the U.S. It’s right there in the title: “America Needs More Scientists and Engineers.”
Now, I can generally agree that America (and the world) needs more science and engineering. I’d personally like to have researchers who could realize room-temperature superconductors, a commercially feasible way to turn carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into industrial products, and both economically viable fusion power and high-efficiency solar power beamed down from orbit—for starters. We most definitely need better technology and more scientific understanding to develop these things, since none of them (as far as we know) are at all impossible, and we sure don’t have any of them yet.
But to automatically assume that we need lots more scientists and engineers to do that is a tempting, but illogical, conclusion. And it’s one that my currently unemployed readers who are scientists and engineers probably don’t enjoy hearing about very much. I think that the initial fallacies are (1) lumping together all science education into a common substance, and (2) assuming that if you just put more of that into the hopper, more good stuff will come out the other end.
If I had to pick one line from the article that I disagree with the most, it would be this one:
America needs Thomas Edisons and Craig Venters, but it really needs a lot more good scientists, more competent scientists, even more mediocre scientists.
No. I hate to be the one to say it, but mediocre scientists are, in fact, in long supply. Access to them is not a rate-limiting step. (That’s the chemist’s way of saying it’s not the main bottleneck.) Not all the unemployed science and technology folks out there are mediocre—not by a long shot (I’ve seen the CVs that come in)—but a lot of the mediocre ones are finding themselves unemployed, and they’re searching an awful long time for new positions when that happens. Who, exactly, would be clamoring to hire a fresh horde of I-guess-they’ll-do science graduates? Is that what we really need to put things over the top, technologically—more foot soldiers?
This summer I had the privilege of going to Scifoo, where I met interesting folks and heard about a lot of interesting successes in science. But my story here involves something that was rather less than success. One session was about education, and set itself to address the question, “How can we better motivate youth to enter the sciences and engineering?” As I listened to an influential policymaker, I became more convinced than ever that policymakers really aren’t the people who should be answering this question—they don’t know how to inspire scientists. And it struck me that the preceding session in that very same room, wherein a presenter showed us his mind-searing video taking the viewer on a “flight” through a brain replete with hundreds of thousands of real-data-generated neurons, implicitly had the answer. So did Carl Sagan and his influential PBS show, Cosmos:
The trouble begins with a central term used among those who think about science and technology education. That word is “STEM,” and it is an acronym for “science, technology, engineering and mathematics.” On one level, the term makes perfect sense: there is a core set of technical skills that each of those in STEM must acquire. But there are big differences within the group. Engineers and scientists tend to be different sorts of folks. They require very different sorts of training. And they lead fundamentally different sorts of work lives.