Science education in America: Why K-12 students fall behind in science.

“How Does a Plant Make Their Food? Do They Use a Microwave?”

“How Does a Plant Make Their Food? Do They Use a Microwave?”

Getting schooled.
Nov. 24 2013 11:45 PM

“Tell Your Second-Grade Teacher I’m Sorry”

The failure of science education in the United States.

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Hawbridge students and teachers take a lot of field trips, usually about two a month. Two years ago, during a study of contemporary innovations, we were preparing for a trip to the planetarium. “You know I don’t believe in any of that stuff, Ms. Boggs,” said one of my students, a junior I’ll call Amy.

“What stuff?” I asked.

“You know,” she said, looking at the ceiling. “Outer space.”


“What do you think is up there then, Amy?”

“God,” she said. “And clouds. And Jesus.”

Rebecca Skloot might have helpfully drawn Amy a map of the solar system, or taken her stargazing one night, or asked why God, Jesus, stars, and meteorites could not all coexist. I did none of those things but continued with my English lesson—something about class consciousness and symbolism in The Great Gatsby. On breaks, at lunch, or before school, I’d been trying to persuade Amy to quit smoking, and I was afraid a religious dispute might turn her against me. I didn’t want Amy to feel isolated or alienated.

What occurred to me only later is that Amy was already alienated—from science, from ecology—in a way that was similar to Lawrence Lacks’ disengagement. Amy had several things in common with Lacks. Her family suffered from a history of health problems. She was fearful and suspicious of new ideas. She worked full time, at a fast-food restaurant, to help support her family. And she was underprepared by the education she received before she came to our school, arriving in ninth grade but reading at a level several grades below.

Luckily, I wasn’t Amy’s only teacher, and in her senior year she had the guidance of Norma Johnson, who once taught biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In Johnson’s biology class, Amy participated in a range of inquiry-based activities that made scientific principles real to her—reading nutrition labels and tracing her daily food consumption through the metabolic process, examining mosses growing in nearby woods, dissecting a fetal pig, and interacting with guest lecturers from universities and science-based outreach programs. In September and October, Amy used her lunch period and study period to get extra help with the challenging coursework, but she became more confident and independent as the year progressed. She finished the year with a B in biology and graduated from high school with plans to go to the local community college. She hopes to become a nurse.

Amy was one of the lucky ones, entering the school by lottery and finding teachers who not only helped her catch up on skills, but also made the things she was learning relevant to her life. Back at her old school, there are bound to be many Amys who won’t be so lucky—who won’t get in or aren’t even aware they can apply to a school with smaller class sizes or hands-on learning. Amy’s opportunity ought to be everyone’s.

Scientific illiteracy is a luxury—one our poorest and most vulnerable citizens cannot afford. In an ideal K–12 classroom, every student (and every teacher) would consider himself a scientist, and everyone would be engaged in personally relevant, inquiry-driven science learning. This kind of education, which invites students to observe, hypothesize, debate, experiment, and problem-solve, is not easy to facilitate. It requires content knowledge and experience not only with instructional methodology but also with classroom management. Science teachers in particular need strong management skills and specific and in-depth understanding of their subject matter.

But it’s also true that nonscientists can be trained to provide rigorous, exciting, inquiry-driven instruction in elementary school classrooms. “Kids are natural scientists,” said Laursen. “They like bugs and dirt, they can observe something for a long time, they’re curious. When we fail to capitalize on young children’s curiosity and inclination toward social learning, we turn science into a boring, rote exercise by middle school, at which point it is often too late to reclaim students’ interest and curiosity.” Whatever is outside the classroom door—a recovering post-industrial river, a patch of grass, a cracked cement courtyard—is an opportunity for engagement with science learning: growing vegetables, designing experiments, observing a colony of ants with a field notebook. And a community’s environmental issues—logging, littering, smog, development—are also immediately relevant to students’ lives.

* * *

“I’m not a scientist, man,” Florida Sen. Marco Rubio told GQ magazine in an interview published in December 2012, following the first presidential debate season in 28 years to fail to mention climate change. Rubio had been asked how old he thinks the Earth is; it is unclear whether he was signaling a fashionable disdain for scientific facts or whether he truly did not know. His full answer suggested that, in his mind, science was far removed from the important work of growing our economy, and that only people in lab coats have any business thinking about things like the age of the planet. In his response to the 2013 State of the Union address, in which President Obama declared himself willing to take executive action against climate change, Rubio dismissed such actions as “job-killing” and suggested that “the government can’t control the weather.”

Meanwhile, the year 2012 had been the hottest on record in the contiguous United States, with above-normal temperatures registering every month everywhere except the Pacific Northwest. That year’s drought was the worst in 50 years, registering as “severe” in more than half the country, and the record-setting wildfire season, the second worst since the 1960s, claimed an area of land roughly the size of Maryland. In late October of that year, the East Coast experienced the second-costliest hurricane on record, an immense storm that devastated areas rarely hit by Category 3 hurricanes.

After a devastatingly hot summer, and particularly after Hurricane Sandy, Americans began to appear more receptive to scientists’ warnings about climate change. Some polls had as many as 7 in 10 respondents agreeing that climate change is real, and post-election, 60 percent of voters agreed with the statement that “climate change made Hurricane Sandy worse.”

On the surface, this looks encouraging. In some respects, Americans may be finally waking up to the reality of a rapidly changing climate. But a response to a dramatic weather event, however convincing, is fragile and perhaps unsustainable. What if next summer is unusually cool, the hurricane season relatively calm? Will we continue to listen to climate reports from NOAA? Perhaps more importantly, there is little indication that respondents to recent polls understand what it would take to turn things around, or how their own actions and choices might play a role. They are not scientists either—not most of them, not yet.

Much recent discussion about the importance of STEM subject education has focused on job training, on preparing our kids and our country to compete in high-stakes and high-income professions. Like Marco Rubio, the majority of students in an average fifth-grade classroom will not become professional scientists or engineers. Every one of them, however, will need to understand skills and ideas connected to the principles of science—what a plant needs to grow, how to read nutrition and medication labels, what it means when their state considers hydraulic fracturing or offshore drilling. Their understanding of these principles will determine how long they live, and how well.


This essay originally appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of Orion and also appears in the anthology Leave No Child Inside. Request a free trial issue of Orion here.

Belle Boggs has worked in public schools across the U.S. Her new novel, The Ugly Bear List, is forthcoming.