Monday, June 25, 2012

How Is Science Being Taught in American Schools?

Science is our future.

If children do better on scientific subjects, including technology, engineering and math, we will be a stronger nation with a more vibrant economy.

And, of course, students who excel at science have better job and career prospects.

So, how well are America’s schools teaching science?

A study prepared in the Department of Education suggests that when it comes to science America’s teachers are failing America’s children.

Actually, the report suggests that America’s children are doing poorly at science. You may give me credit or blame for holding teachers responsible.

In some areas of basic science American children do fairly well. But when they face more complex problems they come up short. When called upon to explain their reasoning they also do poorly.

Maureen Henderson describes the fall-off:

For example, 75% of high school seniors could successfully use test strips to test water samples for the levels of four pollutants, record the data and interpret whether the results exceeded EPA standards, but only 25% of students were able to design and conduct an investigation using a simulated calorimeter and related patterns in temperature changes in two different metals to determine which metal has the higher specific heat capacity. Results were the same at the lower grade levels, where only 24% and 35% of eighth and fourth graders respectively were able to handle the more difficult experiments. Students also had difficulty in explaining how they arrived at a correct conclusion, with only 27% of twelfth graders able to both select a correct answer and explain why they did so in one section of the test. And in another section, only 11% were able to make a final recommendation that was supported by the data they had worked with in the experiment.

American children know how to make observations; they know how to run simple experiments;  and they know how to draw correct conclusions.

Yet, when new experiments introduce complex variables, the students do much worse. When they are asked to conceptualize, they are lost.

We might not be able to explain why this is happening, but we can take a step toward understanding it.

Henderson offers a clue:

If there’s a bright spot in the NAEP report, it’s the fact that female students are matching or exceeding the performance of their male peers in both hands-on and interactive tasks.

Schools are not teaching advanced scientific problem-solving and reasoning, but they have achieved gender parity.

Is this an accidental correlation or is the connection causal? 

It is certainly possible that educators have chosen gender parity over scientific excellence. If so, then that would help to explain their failure.

Educators may have chosen to close the gender gap at the expense of boys. They may have devalued certain types of reasoning because girls do not do as well on them. They may have changed the content of experiments to make science a more girl-friendly field?

We know that when boys believe that a field is identified as more feminine, they turn off and go back to their video games.

We know that teachers of the humanities and social sciences now actively discriminates against boys.

Is the same thing true of science?

If you read through the Department of Education report you will observe that the tests mostly involve girl-friendly and environmentally correct topics. They ask how sun-loving plants grow, how to test for pollution, and, how heat is conducted in frying pans.

Do you believe that ten or twelve year old boys will crank it up to study how to cook an omelet?

Sometimes the questions are directed at more boy friendly topics like electronic circuits and magnetic fields but they do not teach about cars, guns, and boats. They do not address questions about mining, agribusiness and construction.

Does it matter? I suspect that it does. 


David Foster said...

See my posts skipping science class, and skipping science class, continued.

The posts deal specifically with reports about science teaching in the UK, but clearly, some of the same malign trends are at work in the US.

Basically, what is going on is an attempt to convert all subjects whatsoever into "social studies."

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks, David, for providing links to your posts on the topic. I agree with you that the same malign trends are afoot in the USA.

I do not know very much about how science is being taught so I very much appreciate your reports.