Educating Students for the 21st Century

By Bruce M. Alberts and Jan Tuomi


The accelerating impact of science and technology on the lives of Americans makes a basic understanding of science and mathematics an essential part of any education for the 21st century. In the 1980s researchers alarmed the nation with reports on the low level of scientific and technical literacy among high school graduates. In response, Americans began new education initiatives, such as the 1989 summit with former President Bush and the nation's governors outlining education goals for the nation, many state and local education coalitions, the National Science Foundation's systemic reform initiatives, and the production of new instructional materials and benchmarks for science literacy. In addition, later this year, the National Science Education Standards will be published by the National Research Council.

Despite this progress, science is still greatly undervalued in our schools. Science is too often treated as an optional activity, rather than as a core subject. Moreover, the nature of classroom science must change. Science educators must move away from the mindless memorization of science terms now plaguing many classrooms. Classrooms should offer children experiential opportunities to learn basic scientific concepts and to develop and carry out systematic processes for solving scientific problems. Further, science education must start during the early years of schooling, when children still display their natural curiosity and excitement for learning. We must highlight science as an inquiry activity and cease the drill and rote learning approaches that have caused so many of our students to lose interest in school science.

Teacher-Scientist Partnerships

The scientific, engineering and medical communities have not contributed a great deal to school reform. However, a number of individuals have demonstrated the potential to help catalyze widespread improvement in science classrooms by building partnerships with their colleagues in K-12 education. Through partnerships, these professionals learn about obstacles to improving science education in America's classrooms, and they learn how to best apply their varied talents toward creating lasting change.

On the basis of our own experience in partnerships between scientists and engineers and K-12 educators, we recommend focusing partnership activities on teacher professional development activities that support the implementation of a modular science curriculum. We have worked to establish such a partnership between the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) over the last five years.

San Francisco is a city rich in science and technology resources. At UCSF, scientists, doctors and graduate students carry out cutting-edge research and apply scientific knowledge and new technologies to widespread societal challenges. Many UCSF employees have children in the SFUSD, and so are familiar with the quality and quantity of science education their children receive in the city's public schools. Many of these parents had voiced concern over the years, but few had found effective pathways to involvement that could significantly improve science instruction or resources.

San Francisco Schools

In 1990, most elementary teachers taught little or no science; instead, the focus of their activities was on reading and math. Classrooms received only textbooks from the school district. Some teachers collected science activities from workshops or summer institutes, and produced their own materials. While many active programs existed to improve elementary science education, these efforts did not reach the city's classrooms in a consistent and equitable way. Most importantly, valuable programs were never successfully integrated into the infrastructure of the school district.

Today, after four years of intense partnership activity between the school district and the scientific community, the school district supplies every school with four science modules per grade-level per year. They also send materials from a district materials center that refurbishes materials for each teacher's use. All teachers have had an introduction to the new hands-on curriculum and to strategies for using the units successfully.

Why are the teachers paying more attention to science as an integral part of the classroom experience? First, the teachers now receive the kinds of resources needed to implement a successful science lesson, including materials, teachers' manuals, lesson plans, and suggestions for curriculum integration. Grade-level meetings address ongoing implementation concerns and provide mentoring for less experienced teachers. Finally, district principals and parents actively support the teachers in their work.

Scientists from UCSF and other community institutions contribute to the effort primarily by participating in the teachers' professional development activities. Approximately twenty scientists, for example, worked with teachers to plan about 30 days of staff development activities per year. Scientists acted as examples of authentic scientific inquiry, sources of content knowledge and research expertise, and liaisons to science university labs and clinics. They also helped design extensions to the curriculum and worked with the district in developing their long term strategic plan for science education. Equally important, the scientists became active advocates of high quality science education in their community.

Lessons Learned

How did this transformation take place? Will it last? How would we advise others to go about setting up a partnership between scientists and educators? We believe that the following ingredients greatly improve the likelihood of success in science education partnerships.

Start in Elementary Schools

The natural response of a scientist who wants to help improve science teaching in our schools is to concentrate at the high school level. Here, the science is taught in the academic disciplines that scientists are used to biology, chemistry, physics, earth sciences. Many of us with experience in school systems have come to the conclusion that the major revolution called for in science education is best accomplished by starting in what at first seemed to us to be a very alien world the elementary school. The advantages of focusing our limited resources on elementary science include the fact that many of our best teachers are found in these schools. Moreover, elementary teachers work with the same group of students all day; this allows them to schedule the time required for a meaningful science inquiry experience. At this level, engaging science explorations will foster positive student attitudes toward science from the start of the students' academic careers.

Engage District Administration

It is critical for partnership participants to engage the school district leadership in a dialogue about their current science curriculum and future plans. Ultimately, it is the district managers and school principals who must provide the professional support teachers need to experiment with new instructional techniques. The success of our partnership has depended on our ability to foster enthusiastic support from school district administrators.

Instructional Materials are Key

Identifying the best instructional materials available is critical to the success or failure of any partnership. If instructional materials are ill conceived, shallow or incomplete, professional development activities organized around these materials are likely to be similarly flawed. Well developed instructional materials often inspire the same level of fascinated inquiry in teacher workshops that they do in the classroom, and help provide models for teachers of well-designed science lessons. Materials that have been carefully field-tested will help newcomers avoid common pitfalls in materials management and instruction, which helps maintain teacher enthusiasm for the effort as a whole. Currently, research-based curricula exist that have been tested extensively in diverse classrooms. These curricula are designed to foster conceptual understanding over a period of several weeks. SFUSD adopted the following two programs: Full Option Science System and Insights.

Beyond identifying specific curriculum units, partnership participants must develop a common vision of science teaching and learning. The National Science Education Standards will provide a valuable new tool to help develop this vision, build local consensus, and guide plans to align teaching, learning and assessment. This overall vision helps keep activities focused on improving science education through the difficult periods that come with any long-term effort.

Provide for the Professional Development of Teachers

To foster excellence in science learning, merely advocating specific curricular units is not enough to support reform. The partnership effort must also provide professional development that helps teachers understand scientific inquiry. As teachers begin working with the curriculum units, they expand their repertoire of instructional strategies and gain deeper insight into their students' conceptual development. The teachers learn to enjoy not fear science teaching, and become more adept with using a variety of hands-on materials. Teachers are quickly inspired by their students' positive reactions to hands-on science. Soon, the teachers are ready to explore more in-depth studies of scientific inquiry, the role of the teacher as facilitator, curriculum integration, and student assessment. With mastery of science content and pedagogy, teachers may develop individual, student-centered innovations to enhance commercial curriculum kits.

The long-term goal of a professional development program should be to reach all teachers in the region a goal that requires a well-planned, step-by-step dissemination plan. Our strategy for building this capacity was to prepare a core group of lead teachers. These teachers provide feedback from principals and their colleagues on what works in the schools.

Build a Regional Infrastructure

To ensure lasting change, the school district must supply classroom materials and continual professional development. This requires reallocating resources to design and implement a materials distribution system, to provide release time for teachers to work and plan with colleagues, and to build the infrastructure needed to support ongoing improvement of science education.

To support science education improvement, community stakeholders need to become informed about the goals and activities of area partnerships. Moreover, they might need to change their on-going programs to avoid duplication of effort and optimize the use of resources.

Create Long-term Community Support

Strategic efforts in school districts often fail due to the transitional nature of school district employment: superintendents often have a short tenure, school board members and state politicians fail at reelection, and local school district employees change jobs. Local technical professionals, who are knowledgeable about the state of science education in their local area, can provide the stable platform needed for a continuous improvement process.

Local efforts will not succeed without support from a community that values science education. Scientists can provide this kind of supportive voice. United in our conviction that children need quality science education to lead productive and satisfying lives, we must do our best to give them the chance to succeed.


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