Let's Put Discovery Back into Our Science Classrooms!

It's funny what inspires one toward a career in science or engineering.

Kary Mullins who earned the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993, says it was the experience of growing up in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina that did it for him. There, in a more simple and idyllic time than today, he had the freedom to build and launch his own rockets, and to dream while exploring the biodiversity in the woods, the swamp and the orchards near his home.

Inspiration and the chance to discover are important for all of us. Like with Kary Mullins, these experiences plant the seeds for success in life. However, at a time when we desperately need more young minds to prepare for, and succeed in, challenging fields of technological innovation, I believe we in the public and private sectors are not providing our secondary education teachers and schools with the necessary help to excite and motivate our children toward fields such as science and engineering.

Teaching is a tough job - and getting tougher. Put aside crowded classrooms, declining budgets and other obstacles that face educators, teachers today must also contend with meeting stringent curriculum and testing standards in the classroom. This environment allows limited time for instruction, compelling teachers to constantly "teach for the test" which takes them away from more personal, interactive instruction that excite kids about learning, especially in more traditionally challenging subjects such as science and math.
When teaching and learning become impersonal and premised solely on textbooks, lectures and memorization of facts and figures, students tune out. My two daughters can attest to that from their high school classes.

Even though they attended a highly-rated private school with the very best teachers, my daughters sometimes perplexed after learning multiple facts and figures in science class in preparation for an AP (Advanced Placement) exam how this information actually applied to their everyday lives. Both my daughters started out in school interested in science but are now planning a career in art and history respectively after finishing college. They feel that they would have perhaps retained their interest in science if such classes in high school had been made more interactive, hands-on and connected to real life.

The fact that the U.S. is not producing sufficient numbers of scientists and engineers to remain competitive in a growing global environment speaks, in many ways, to the experiences of my two daughters and other kids like them. But it also suggest the question: How can we help turn this trend around?

First, the use of standards in schools must be put in perspective. Yes, standards are important, but as David Cohen, professor of Education and Public Policy at the University of Michigan, concludes in his book Learning Policy: When State Education Reform Works, academic standards and tests without meaningful real-world context rarely influence change in the directions and to the extent hoped.

As Dr. Cohen strongly suggests, standards work best when they incorporate exploration and discovery. And students learn science best by doing it, not just by reading about it. I believe that the spirit of science is further enhanced when the student, under the guidance of the teacher, discovers principles from hands-on experiments (not canned laboratory periods) and is allowed to make his or her own mistakes toward this end. This not only builds self-confidence, it also enhances creativity, critical thinking and persistence which can be applied to other aspects of life as well.

In other words, students must "connect " with science on a personal level. Unfortunately, in K-12 science instruction today, the chief classroom resource remains the textbook, and the most prevalent instructional activity in high school science classes is listening to the teacher and taking notes. This occurs despite the fact that research studies demonstrate that students in science and other subjects learn significantly better when learning is combined with interactive experiences such as field trips, guest classroom visits by scientists and engineers, inquiry-based instruction, role playing, group study and mentoring.

It is through many of these meaningful experiences that scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs in the public and private sectors can assist schools in exciting students about challenging technological fields of tomorrow.

Partnerships like these expose kids to inspiring learning in and out of the classroom -situations they often would not experience until they are older.

A perfect example of such collaboration is the inaugural 2010 USA Science & Engineering Festival (www.usasciencefestival.org) we are sponsoring this October nationwide in which professionals from research, business and education communities in science and engineering will come together to assist teachers and schools in making technological discovery come alive for students.

This major event, which culminates with an Expo in Washington, DC on the National Mall, is jam packed with exciting hands-on, interactive experiences designed to give students an up-close-and-personal look at the latest in technology, and insight into how teachers can incorporate this information in their classrooms.

Through the Festival's extensive schedule of exhibits and presentations, students will be able to work on a surgical robot, fly in a flight simulator, use 3-D visualization to move cargo in a Space Shuttle, see future space travel, meet media personalities in science such as Bill Nye the Science Guy, experience future applications of green technology, and much, much more.

In addition, during this free event 20 Nobel Laureates in science and engineering will speak at individual Brown Bag Lunch sessions about their careers, while more than 50 noted scientists and engineers will fan out to schools in the Maryland, Washington and Virginia metro areas to conduct presentations about their work and what inspired them to enter their professions.

Through the Festival, we are hoping to reach - and inspire - more than a million students, teachers, parents and others about the wonders of science and engineering discovery and careers of tomorrow. We hope that this annual event also spawns other working partnerships between the technology community and teachers and schools across the country to begin helping making science "real" for our children.

I'll close this article with an eye-opening example of how fun and inspiring science can be for students when they are allowed to explore and discover on their own, away from traditional, and yes, sometimes boring, classroom and laboratory methods. The two high school students featured in this video below as part of the Festival's Kavil Science Video Contest just to demonstrate how cool chemistry can be.

As President Obama said: "Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, and our health, and our way of life than it has ever been."

~~first published on Huffinton Post


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When you have hundreds of PhDs applying to a faculty position, and hundreds of BSs trying to get into a graduate program, you do not have a shortage of science inspiration.

It is certainly worthwhile to get kids interested in science, but it has little (probably nothing) to do with the U.S.'s shortfalls in scientist production.

The problem with young potential scientists is that they're smart. Smart enough to realize that the labor market for scientists is absolute crap. They realize that they'll be treated like steerage for at least a decade of their careers, particularly if they wish to stay in academics. There are plenty of kids who make it to college interested in science, but many of them realize that careers in other fields would probably be better for them.

To reiterate; it's worthwhile to get kids interested in science for a bunch of reasons, but fixing our "scientist output" is not one of them.

This article is nonesense. American students must learn to be homework problem solving machines because that is how graduate school is structured.They will be facing competition from foreign students with access to the answer books of the standard texts (easily available in India and China) and an academic culture built around problem solving.Many of the foreign students will have earned advanced degrees in their home countries but will be competing against American students fresh out of undergraduate programs as if it were and even playing field.

By John McHugh (not verified) on 05 Jul 2010 #permalink

In celebration of its Golden Jubilee, the Indo-American Society (IAS) is proud to convene the first ever Indo-American Summit on Higher Education during 30, 31 July 2010 and 1 August 2010 at the Hotel Grand Hyatt, Mumbai.

The Summit will present participants with an invaluable opportunity to collaborate with key business, political and academic personalities at a national and international level and address important issues, particularly in regard to policy framing and regulations and international partnerships.

I can honestly say that I never learned anything from labs in my science classes, both in middle/highschool and in my Engineering undergrad. It was more like they were trying to prove to me that the science is correct, except that they didn't prove it very well to me.

The worst offender was physics 2 in college; none of my results were anything near the expected results. Regression coefficients were sometimes off by several orders of magnitude, and the teacher would basically fail me on my lab reports since none of my listed sources of error would explain such a gross error (and I pretty much listed every possible thing that could have gone wrong in my experiment at every step as a possible source of error).

After 3-4 failing labs because of the inexplicably wrong results that most of the class would get, everyone wised up and just pretended to do the lab and then make up data that was along the lines of what the teacher expected. Luckily for us they didn't have items of secret amounts that we had to determine that they could check to stop us from completely calculating the intended values, otherwise the whole class would have just failed every lab for the year; that really would have taught us so much!

My chemistry labs were the opposite; we didn't even have to do real lab reports, and the results typically were close enough to the expected that it was ok, but even if it wasn't if you followed the instructions properly they wouldn't just fail you. They were useful in teaching how rudimentary exploratory science was performed, but that is a completely different thing than learning the science to begin with; it's more of a side related topic that requires knowledge of the science to begin with, not an alternate method of teaching.

I agree 100% with this article. True education is self education. I remember bits of a quote that said âschool⦠yes I went to school but it got in the way of my real education.â How sad is that? How many students all over the world go through twelve to 16 years of schooling and have the same thoughts. I was fortunate that during my high school and college careers I can only say that was true half of the time. I believe that is still too much. âMentors and teachers can guide us and colleagues can share what works for them, and teachers can tell us what to do, what works, and what the correct answer is but ultimately we walk the path of self discovery, true awareness, insight, and deep understanding alone.â (Brown and Moffett, 1999).

Socrates was one of the greatest educators who taught by asking questions and thus drawing out (as 'ex duco', meaning to 'lead out', which is the root of 'education') answers from his pupils. The overall purpose of questioning is to challenge accuracy and completeness of thinking in a way that acts to move people towards their ultimate goal not yours.

I always hear people complain about NCLB or testing. Well I am here to tell you that if teaching is done through researched based and brain compatible techniques, students can learn how to solve problems, work with others, communicate, and learn all the facts they need. We must be careful that we lead with problem solving and tie in the facts later. We need to lead with experiences and we need to encourage students to make mistakes. Getting the right answer is not learning. Being able to EXPLAIN WHY the answer is right or wrong is what is important.

According to Leslie A. Heart, and her work, Human Brain and Human Learning, âthe human brain is constantly seeking patterns in its environment. The six patterns the brain identifies are objects, actions, procedures, situations, relationships and systems. The brain does not take in patterns in logical, sequential manner, it takes them in randomlyâ. In order for the brain to identify patterns and to make connections, the brain needs many, many real world experiences which are rich, varied, and challenging.

Equally important, when we learn we do not learn by making connections of individual isolated facts. We learn and remember when the brain is able to make physiological connections between millions and millions of neurons in the brain called neural pools, schema, or neural populations based on numerous experiences. Joe Z. Tsien, The Memory Code - Scientific America, July 2007, determined that âNeural Cliques are a group of neurons that respond to similarly to a selected event and thus operate collectively as a robust coding unit. The brain is not simply a device that records every detail of a particular event. Instead neural cliques in the memory system allow the brain to encode the key features of specific episodes and, at the same time, to extract from those experiences general information that can be APPLIED to a future situation that may share some essential features but vary in physical detail. This ability to generate abstract concepts and knowledge from daily episodes is the essence of our intelligence and enables us to solve new problems in the ever changing world.â Leslie Hart, says that âpattern recognition is the ability to identify and understand the things in our environment. The brain needs quantum amounts of experiences to understand and apply the patterns. Application of patterns are how mental programs (neural cliques) are built and mental programs allow humans to understand the patterns identifiedâ. By using more rich, varied, and challenging learning experiences more curriculum connections and mastery will result from the formation of these more elaborate mental programs. âAll of our experiences result in the formation of neuronal circuits. The richer, more varied, and more challenging the experiences, the more elaborate the neuronal circuits.â (Dr. Richard Restak, The New Brain.)

How can we have rich, varied, and challenging experiences through reading books, answering questions, and listening to lecture?

We need to bring discovery in our classrooms. We need to be more concerned with inspiring students first and teaching concepts second. If they do not care than why should they learn.

The purpose of school, in my opinion, is to help educate our children so that they can be problem solvers and life long learners. One of my principals showed his staff a video and the presenter in the video said something I donât think I will ever forget. In the video the presenter said, âThe problem with schools is that scools teach students to be successful in school and not how to be successful in life.â

"everyone wised up and just pretended to do the lab and then make up data that was along the lines of what the teacher expected."

The same thing happen in my college year, in the end my friend and i always make up fictional data to meet the teacher expectation

I have watched multiple videos in which Larry Bock was interviewed. Bock always says this:"It is getting impossible to hire American citizens into advanced science positions. Therefore we need to reinvigorate science in the American society."

If you notice the comment from Aaron who mentioned,"When you have hundreds of PhDs applying to a faculty position, and hundreds of BSs trying to get into a graduate program, you do not have a shortage of science inspiration." Basically he is saying that Bock's statement is false.

I think Aaron and Bock need to meet to work something out. Perhaps Bock can hire Aaron, or American PhDs that Aaron was talking about.

By Lockey Martini (not verified) on 02 Oct 2010 #permalink

Mr. Bock is looking to supply American citizens with PhD in hard sciences to Lockheed and other similar companies. He is not interested in hiring for the universities. So, Aaron, what you've said about positions in the academics does not apply to Bock's agenda.