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?”

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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.

Solar Greenhouse,

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.

One of the most remarkable scenes in Rebecca Skloot’s 2010 work of science journalism, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, happens about halfway through the book, in a smoky Baltimore kitchen. Skloot has been pursuing the reluctant Lacks family for about a year and has finally managed an introduction to Lawrence Lacks, the oldest son of Henrietta and Day Lacks. He cooks eggs and pork chops for Skloot and begins reminiscing about his mother, a strict, pretty woman who died of cervical cancer when he was a young teenager, but soon admits that, at 64, he barely remembers her at all. Instead of memories, photographs, and family anecdotes, he and his siblings have only the ominous stories of her stolen cells: that there are enough of them now to “cover the whole earth,” that they have cured diseases, that they will soon make it possible for humans to live to be 800 years old.

After ushering Skloot into the living room with her plate of food, Lawrence asks her to tell him what his mother’s cells (now known in biomedical research as the “HeLa immortal cell line”) “really did,” and Skloot asks him if he knows what a cell is. “Kinda,” he tells her. “Not really.” Skloot writes:


I tore a piece of paper from my notebook, drew a big circle with a small black dot inside, and explained what a cell was, then told him some of the things HeLa had done for science, and how far cell culture had come since.

Although their mother’s cells—taken without her knowledge during her cancer treatment in 1951—have indeed helped cure diseases and have made millions of dollars for biomedical supply companies, pharmaceutical companies, and research laboratories, the surviving members of the Lacks family still live in poverty, without reliable access to health insurance or proper medical care. Perhaps more significantly, they lack even the basic scientific information that would allow them to understand Henrietta’s legacy or make informed decisions about their own health. At Lawrence’s house, Skloot meets 84-year-old Day Lacks, Henrietta’s husband, who wears flip-flops in cold weather because he has gangrene in his feet; after his wife’s death and the re-emergence of her mysterious cells, he is afraid to let doctors treat him. Sonny, one of Henrietta’s other sons, refuses angioplasty for the same reason.

Skloot’s simple diagram, along with an article she shows him about a method of corneal transplantation developed through the study of his mother’s cells, has a profound effect on Lawrence. He is energized by the idea that his mother’s cells could help cure blindness, and he convinces other members of his family, including his father, his wife, and his sister, to talk to Skloot.

How is it possible that no one has ever told him how a cell works before? You could speculate that because Lawrence was educated during the time of Jim Crow segregation, he received poor instruction or that the economic and emotional pressure on his family after the death of Henrietta affected his educational attainment. You could consider the partial deafness, untreated until adulthood, that made it hard for Lawrence and his siblings to understand teachers, or the time Lawrence spent out of school, doing field labor. You could point to his environment, a low-income neighborhood in a poor city, where rumors of body snatching and unauthorized medical experimentation on African-Americans engendered suspicion of doctors and scientists. Certainly all of these details contributed to Lawrence’s abashed admission that he did not know what a cell was or how it functioned.


But it is also true that the public school system of the United States, the richest country in the world, still struggles to educate our citizens about science and to make that education relevant and present in their daily lives. How well we understand science affects almost every aspect of our personal and civic lives: our health, our reproductive choices, our understanding of the news, how and whether we vote, and our interaction with the environment. Many of the most important and contentious political issues of our time—climate change, hydraulic fracturing, offshore drilling—are also environmental and require an understanding of basic scientific principles that many of our poorest citizens lack. These same citizens will suffer from their lack of understanding: from water quality damaged by fracking, from mountaintop removal, from flooding caused by rising water levels. Poor people are disproportionately susceptible to poor health and more likely to be exposed to environmental or household pollutants. But for many of our poorest citizens, science education is largely ignored, especially in the foundational elementary and middle school years, as we favor the “basics” of reading and math through a testing and school accountability system that does not prepare our students for the significant social and environmental challenges to come.

* * *


I was a K–12 educator for 10 years, working in rural and urban public elementary, middle, and high schools in California; New York; Washington, D.C.; and North Carolina. No Child Left Behind, signed into law by George W. Bush in 2002, was my constant professional companion, rating the schools where I taught as adequate or inadequate and allocating resources accordingly. This frequently maligned law identified the subjects I taught—English, reading, and writing—as among the most crucial (along with math), and I received additional support so that my students could be successful on the standardized tests that determined my schools’ yearly progress. My students received additional tutoring, materials, and time in class, and I was given pedagogical training and assistance from my principals with managing tough classes. Meanwhile, I observed science teachers and classrooms, particularly at the elementary and middle schools, receiving fewer materials and resources, and even less institutional support.

At the elementary school in Brooklyn where I taught first grade, science was a “special,” along with dance, art, and physical education. That meant that students were delivered by their homeroom teachers to the science teacher between one and three times a week for less than an hour each time. I remember that the science teacher, a patient but weary man from Jamaica, had little in the room to engage my 6-year-olds beyond laminated charts and posters on the wall: no microscopes, no plants, no homemade solar system models or fungus-crowded petri dishes. No fish tanks or worm bins or leaf specimens. Our principal liked a tidy classroom, and the science teacher’s was spotless. She also liked a quiet classroom, and although the kids never seemed especially rowdy to me, he bemoaned their fidgety lack of discipline: In Jamaica, he once told me, it was common for one teacher to control a class of 40 or 45 students.


What did they do in there? Worksheets, mostly, filled with labeled drawings, diagrams, and charts they could not read. Sometimes he performed an experiment, and they watched. Perhaps the best behaved were invited up to help him; most of them never left their seats.

At the time, it did not occur to me to be outraged, or to feel responsible for making up for their lost opportunities. My school was a Title I school; so many of my students qualified for free breakfast and lunch that everyone ate free, and the school day was long and often difficult. I was new to the classroom, my teaching philosophy strongly influenced by Earl Shorris’ Clemente Course in the Humanities, a program developed in the 1990s to provide university-level instruction in philosophy, art, logic, and poetry to poor adults in American cities. My students, poor children from Bedford-Stuyvesant, would achieve agency and power in their own, first-grade way: we’d read poetry, study Pablo Picasso and Jacob Lawrence, listen to jazz, write folk tales about our neighborhood.

Sometimes we planted seeds and bulbs in paper cups and left them to sprout on the windowsill, but mostly I didn’t worry about science. I was teaching them to read; I was working on their cultural literacy.

But science is cultural literacy, a fact that became apparent when a friend teaching in the same school told me about getting her fifth-graders ready for their statewide science test. Preparation was hurried, last-minute, cursory: Their scores would not be held against our Adequate Yearly Progress, after all. My friend, however, did not want her students to feel blindsided by the test, so she had photocopied some handouts and sample questions. “I was trying to explain photosynthesis,” she said, “and one of my kids asked me, ‘How does a plant make their food? Do they use a microwave?’ What do you say to that?”


The uncertain student had spent little of his elementary school time outside, had not taken field trips to any science museums. He had not gardened or designed experiments about sunlight and plant growth or even diagrammed a leaf. He had never looked at a plant cell under a microscope. His frame of reference for the world, and his relationship to it, was severely limited, but teachers and school administrators had worried instead about how well he could read and multiply.

I was reminded of something another friend, teaching first grade nearby, said she told one of her former students, a girl who’d ended the year woefully unprepared for the next year: “Tell your second-grade teacher I’m sorry.”

ECHS students explore light and the electromagnetic spectrum using prisms.

Photo courtesy Marty Benson/Environmental Charter High School

We have a lot to be sorry for—and a lot to worry about. Start with climate change, for a particularly fearsome example. Most climate scientists agree that, unless global carbon emissions are curtailed, we are headed for irreversible climate change: an increase of 2 degrees Celsius by 2040 and 4 degrees by 2070. A rise of 2 degrees would likely mean natural, economic, and social disaster—droughts, famines, floods, storms. A rise of 4 degrees would be catastrophic for human life across the globe.

However, the average American is more skeptical of the seriousness of global warming than he was in 1997.


Forty percent of Americans believe that global warming is not caused by human activity.

Sixteen percent believe global warming is “not that much of a threat” or “not a threat at all.”

Certainly the above examples of scientific illiteracy have much to do with our political climate, in which a belief in science is often pitted against a belief in God or the free market. But it is also true that without a proper foundation in science, which ideally begins before kindergarten, individuals are vulnerable to misunderstanding, the same kind that kept Day and Sonny Lacks from seeking treatment for life-threatening medical conditions. They are also easy targets for misinformation and manipulation, the forces behind our country’s increasing climate change skepticism.

Recently, the science classroom has re-emerged as a stage for political drama. In his campaign for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Texas Gov. Rick Perry claimed that his state taught creationism and evolution side by side, because children were “smart enough to figure out which one is right.” (Aware that requiring the teaching of creationism was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, education officials in Texas scrambled to distance themselves from Perry’s claim.) In spring 2012, the Tennessee state legislature passed a bill designed to protect teachers who allow their students to question and criticize “controversial” topics like evolution and climate change.

If American citizens are to have any chance of speaking truth to power, they will need to have a better handle on the truth part. They will need to be better educated, and the science classroom will have to be political—not in the partisan sense, but in the sense of the Greek word politikos: of, for, or relating to citizens. The science classroom will need to prepare them for engagement in our democratic society, to make choices that affect their lives and their communities.

So what does an ideal science classroom look like? You might ask Sandra Laursen, co-director of ethnography and evaluation at the University of Colorado–Boulder, a research unit devoted to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education. Laursen, a chemist by training, has spent years working as an outreach scientist, providing teacher-training workshops and developing materials with and for K–12 educators. “At all ages, the curriculum is built on well-scaffolded, in-depth, age-appropriate investigations, some of which take place outside,” Laursen says. “There is opportunity, increasing with age, for students to branch off to pursue their own interests, but the curriculum and the teacher continually return the intellectual discussion to a few central scientific concepts and the intellectual and social processes of science.” Laursen’s ideal classroom is equipped with supplies and materials that are maintained and replenished by the school: durable equipment like microscopes and lab glass, but also inexpensive consumables like pH strips, vinegar, toothpicks, and cotton balls. The teacher in Laursen’s ideal classroom participates frequently in collaborative, in-depth professional development that is specific to her science curriculum but also places it in the context of science education that takes place in earlier and later grades. (And she is paid for her time.)

This happens commonly at good private schools, which provide their students with highly qualified (though not necessarily certified) teachers; hands-on, inquiry-based learning; and opportunities for educational travel to places like the Galápagos Islands, where they can volunteer to help eradicate invasive plant species, monitor juvenile Galápagos tortoises, and watch the sunset from the pristine beaches of Tortuga Bay. Children from wealthy families are advantaged as science learners almost from birth: They have better nutrition, better health care, parents who take them to parks and museums and who are able to lead them through questions about their environment. They are more comfortable investigating this world, less hesitant about their place within it.

There are public schools, too, that demonstrate quality science learning, though the pressure to perform on state tests often edges out what we know to be the best practices. Perhaps an even greater challenge for many public schools, especially in our poorest communities, is overcoming the deficits of students who don’t get a firm grounding in science at home. The Environmental Charter Middle School (ECMS) in Inglewood, Calif., in its second year when I visited, provides rigorous, environmentally themed college-preparatory instruction to its students, a majority of whom are from minority, low-income families. In ECMS’s central courtyard, I heard the constant hum of traffic from the 405 freeway and the low, intermittent roar of planes landing at Los Angeles International Airport. But I also saw abundant evidence of student work and thinking that is tied to experiential science learning: terra-cotta container gardens planted with radishes, tomatoes, and peppers; vermicompost bins made from plastic storage containers; rain barrels catching and filtering runoff from the roof. In the seventh-grade courtyard, students were constructing an aquaponic greenhouse, measuring and cutting the wood framing with the assistance of their teachers.

Getting the students to this level has been hard work. According to Kami Cotler, principal of ECMS, many of her students arrive with what she calls “bathtub deficits. They haven’t spent enough time interacting with the physics of their environment.” Cotler and her teachers despaired after the school’s first big project—building paleolithic shelters after a unit on ancient civilizations—revealed that the students had little understanding of scale or measurement. But after almost two years of hands-on, experiential education, they are starting to improve. “When [the students] were reviewing the aquaponic greenhouse plans, they realized that there was a problem of scale, and they worked to fix it,” said Cotler. “That was major.”

ECMS has modeled many of its environmental practices after those of its sister school, Environmental Charter High School, which was founded in 2000. In both schools, the students are engaged by the process of learning about science in an environmental context, and they understand how each modification to their campus fits together. The plants are watered with rain collected in barrels and fertilized with worm casings. At the middle school, they eat the peppers and radishes in their salads at lunch; at the high school, they sell plant seedlings at the weekend farmers market. High school art students paint murals of vulnerable ocean creatures around storm drains, a reminder that even city streets are part of a watershed. Students report becoming environmental advocates at home, encouraging their families to compost or use canvas grocery bags; they understand that there is a direct connection between the things they learn in their biology or chemistry class and the quality of life in their community.

Environmental Charter High School
An ECHS student at the school's solar-powered greenhouse.

Photo courtesy Marty Benson/Environmental Charter High School

All children deserve an education that allows them to make these kinds of connections, and every community deserves to have its citizens engaged in this way. But too often, when we think about the educational challenges facing poor children and the best way to address them, we focus on the things that are easiest to measure: how well a child reads by third grade, how accurately she solves math problems. In schools with the most at-risk students (and the highest level of testing pressure), science class becomes another opportunity to teach reading fluency or to practice computation. It is cut off from its vital content—why are we studying this?—and loses its opportunity to capture students’ attention, the way Lawrence Lacks’ attention was captured by understanding the impact of his mother’s cells.

“Whenever the nation becomes interested, for whatever reason, in alleviating the suffering of the poor, the method is always the same: training,” wrote Earl Shorris in 1997. Training, as he pointed out, focuses on the simplest, least cognitively demanding tasks, and prepares the trained for lives and careers that are less remunerative, less satisfying, and less politically influential than the lives and careers of the truly educated. Shorris, who died in 2012, wanted to see the minds of the poor challenged and enriched by the humanities, and he created a rigorous curriculum that exposed poor and uneducated adults to Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Tolstoy. His primary goal? That students live a reflective, considered life—a life of agency.

Science—the way a cell functions, the vastness of the universe, the effect of development on water quality—can and should have the same impact. But when we replace real, connected science learning with worksheets and test booklets, we are robbing students of the chance to understand what is truly at stake in their lives.

Most recently, I worked at the Hawbridge School, an environmentally focused charter middle and high school in a rural, economically disadvantaged county in North Carolina. Hawbridge’s students, who are selected by lottery, come from five different counties to the school, which is housed in a converted textile mill on the banks of the Haw River. Some come for the small class size and individualized attention, others for the program of interdisciplinary study, still others for the promise of canoeing instruction (part of the physical education program) or the chance to grow their own food in school gardens. But not all of Hawbridge’s students arrive eager for an ecological or even science-rich education; they come because, like students in charter schools everywhere, they had bad experiences in their assigned public schools: Their needs were ignored, they were bullied, or they fell in with the wrong crowd. It is our responsibility, as teachers, to turn them on to the opportunities the school offers—camping, rock climbing, gardening, monitoring water quality in the Haw River, or listening to presentations by university professors.

Sometimes, like teachers everywhere, we let them down.

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.