Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Parents matter to science education

When I tell people that I'm a chemist or that I teach chemistry, they usually say one of three things: (a) I hated or was never good at chemistry (90%), (b) I never took chemistry (5%) or (c) I am a chemist too! (< 1%)  I would expect to see similar numbers with other science subjects although perhaps more people would have liked biology, but I sure would like to see the poor impression of chemistry and the hard sciences fade away.  The future advances in our nation - our ability to cure disease and to develop new technology that addresses our growing energy needs - is intimately connected to science education.  At the moment, we're not doing a very good job at this.  As reported in today's New York Times, a Department of Education report indicates that only one-fifth of high school seniors are graduating at or above a merely "competent" level (and only 2% are earning an "advanced" ranking).  In response to the NAEP - 2009 Report, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said "When only 1 or 2 percent of children score at the advanced levels on NAEP, the next generation will not be ready to be world-class inventors, doctors, and engineers."  1/5th?  2%?  Yikes! 

As our national workforce evolves away from a manufacturing base, we lament the loss of these jobs, but rationalize this loss in terms of better, “new economy” jobs that will be available to Americans.  Unfortunately, as documented by the National Academy of Sciences in Rising Above the Gathering Storm (revised in 2010), we are also losing forward-looking technologies in the energy sector like fuel cells, energy storage, and wind power.  Moreover, our capacity to compete for the 21st century jobs we envision is undermined by our failure to adequately prepare students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  In choosing a 21st century economy, we must commit to educating our students so that they are prepared to drive it.  As a college chemistry teacher, science fair judge, and high school science mentor, it has been my observation that the impressions and aptitude of college students toward science depend less on the college curriculum than from their science experiences during the K-12 years.  College science courses are essential for training of young scientists, but the students who arrive with a strong pre-college science background have a tremendous advantage over students whose exposure is weaker, and they are more likely to pursue these courses and professions.  Moreover, the attitudes of families and parents are critical.  Almost to a person in my experience, children who either aren't interested or think they aren't good at science have parents who share these attitudes.  Coincidence?  I think not.  Students inherit their fear or love of science and math from their parents as surely as any genetic attribute.  The challenge, then, is two-fold: we must teach parents the value of science as we teach science to their children.  We target parents in public health initiatives to stem childhood obesity and decrease the incidence of type 2 diabetes.  We should also try to make parents more effective partners in their children’s science education.

What can parents do?  Do they have to become expert in chemistry or physics or biology, and to hover over the kitchen table with their children slogging through homework assignments? They can but, if nothing else, they should encourage their children to take on hard subjects and recognize that there are advantages to having more doors open rather than less.  Parents can ask questions about the subject, talk to the teachers, and read the many resources available for the lay audience that are out there, go to the science fair, or the magic show at the local college, or the new exhibit at the science museum.  My parents were not scientists, but they saw how important it was to me and they encouraged me to pursue it, with a steady stream of science kits, microscopes and, well, by not getting upset when I had frozen rodents in the basement refrigerator (they were for feeding the snakes...).  My Ph.D. thesis (on the chemistry of multiply-bonded metal complexes - pure poetry!) sat in their living room.  They never read it, and we didn't talk about it at length, but they sure were proud of it.  Thanks, Mom and Dad!

Scientists helped fight infection during the war by teaming up with engineers, building huge-scale fermenters in a Brooklyn factory to culture mold that would make penicillin.  More recently, bioengineers cloned the spider silk gene into goats so that when they produce milk, they also produce silk for the manufacture of incredibly strong fibers.  How cool is that?  Who wouldn't want to know about that?


  1. This is very interesting. I'd like to read more!

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