Bringing science education into the 21st century
Gary Boas, News Editor, firstname.lastname@example.org
Neal C. Gallagher was enjoying being a parent. Retired, the one-time engineering professor wanted to get more involved with his two young children’s schooling. He approached his son’s first-grade teacher about instructing students in the gifted program about science and engineering, and she welcomed the idea.
After researching elementary school science experiments, however, he found that many of them are simply inadequate. “We aren’t challenging the students,” he said. “We aren’t giving them the opportunities to expand their horizons and develop to their full potential.” The problem stems in part from the fact that science curricula focus almost exclusively on fundamental principles, neglecting many of the advances and insights of the past 100 years. “In terms of what we’re teaching,” he said, “we’re still in the industrial age.”
So Gallagher developed a series of experiments – for his son’s first-grade class, and eventually for other grades as well – probing areas such as quantum mechanics, where, for example, he used lasers and speckle to talk about the probability of photons behaving in certain ways. “Quantum mechanics can be taught at a level where kids can understand it,” he said, “and it’s full of interesting and profound questions regarding the nature of the world. If we don’t get kids asking those questions, they’re not going to want to be scientists.”
The US is at a crossroads with respect to its dominance in the sciences. In recent years, as other nations have developed strong research programs, the US has lost ground, a result in part of cultural attacks and relatively flat funding of the sciences. Getting students excited about science again – especially about new fields and the cutting edge of research – is essential to the US holding onto its position, indeed to its remaining competitive edge in the global economy.
The question is: Who will teach these subjects? Elementary school teachers typically have little background in science and often are intimidated by it. Nor can high school science teachers and those developing science curricula be well versed enough in the many current areas of research to integrate that content into their lesson plans.
The California NanoSystems Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, has developed experiments to teach various topics in nanoscience, and in workshops, it shows teachers how to apply them in the classroom. Shown is a recent workshop about solar cells.
Fortunately, organizations such as the California NanoSystems Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Science & Health Education Partnership at the University of California, San Francisco, have taken up the challenge. The California NanoSystems Institute, or CNSI, was established in 2000 with the aim of encouraging collaboration between university researchers and industry and of facilitating commercialization of discoveries in nanosystems. But from the beginning, said Sarah Tolbert, a chemistry professor at UCLA and a member of CNSI, it included an outreach component.
The Science & Health Education Partnership at the University of California, San Francisco, also offers teacher training programs to help bring current scientific research into the classroom. Many of these – such as the City Science program – are taught by teacher-scientist teams able to address practical issues in the classroom and the scientific content, respectively.
CNSI offers the High School Nanoscience Program, which develops experiments that cover fundamental scientific concepts required by the Los Angeles Unified School District while introducing students to the relatively new field of nanoscience. The experiments address an array of topics in the field, including solar cells and photolithography. The institute shows teachers how to perform the experiments in their classrooms and gives them the necessary tools and supplies to do so in workshops conducted throughout the year.
The UCSF Science & Health Education Partnership, or SEP, also focuses on teacher training. In its Current Science Seminar Series, for example, researchers from the university – postdocs and faculty as well as graduate students relatively advanced in their studies – present their work to middle school and high school teachers. The program differs from other seminar series, however, in that the SEP coaches the presenters in how to make their research more accessible to the teachers: helping them develop appropriate analogies and interactive activities to promote understanding of complex concepts.
The SEP works with elementary school teachers as well – through its City Science program, for example – to make them more comfortable with scientific concepts, both new and old. “We find that a lot of the teachers simply lack confidence,” said Katherine Nielsen, co-director of the partnership, noting that many of them took the bare minimum of science classes in college. “A lot of what we do is showing them how best to teach science: getting them to ask questions, dispelling the idea that they need to know all the answers.”
The City Science program introduces teachers to curricula already adopted by the local school district, using kits developed for each grade level by the University of California, Berkeley, Lawrence Hall of Science. The workshops are led by teacher-scientist teams that work through the kits with the participants, encouraging them to engage with the material in ways they might not have otherwise.
The teacher-scientist model is an important part of the SEP’s efforts, Nielsen said. The teachers can help to address any practical issues that might arise in the classroom, while the scientists provide the scientific background for a given lesson.
This sort of collaboration is key to the success of such programs, to the success of teaching students about recent advances in scientific research. At UCLA, Tolbert and CNSI teamed up with the outreach arm of the School of Education to organize the training workshops. “The education school people called us the ‘content providers,’ ” she said. “That really says it all. They would like to run the workshops, but they don’t have the content. And you’re not going to get that unless you’re immersed in the field.”