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Science Stars or Scientific Illiterates: The Choice Is Ours!

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The following is an article by Melissa Book McAlexander, Ph.D. and Isabelle G. Haithcox, Ph.D. that will appear in the premiere issue of NDNU Today, the magazine of Notre Dame de Namur University. The entire magazine will be available online Wednesday, October 10 at ndnu.edu/magazine.

NDNU is about to embark on one of the most exciting endeavors in its history. Thanks to over $6 million in grants from the federal government that we were eligible to receive as a Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI), NDNU is instituting exciting new programs to help Hispanic and low-income students succeed in college. Some of the grant funds are earmarked especially to help more Hispanic and low-income students pursue careers in what are called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professions. Yet for all our good intentions, programs like ours will fail miserably if we don’t take science education at the high and middle school level more seriously.

Case in point: California, a state known for its progressive environmental policies and leading-edge technology, ironically stood on the cusp of setting science education back by decades during the state budget negotiations earlier this year. At a time when the rest of the world is becoming increasingly competitive in science and technology, a little-known provision of Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed 2013-14 budget would have eliminated the requirement that high school students take two years of laboratory science and instead require one.

Thankfully, the approved budget salvaged the funding for a second year of science, although Gov. Brown promises massive cuts to education in November if voters don’t approve a tax increase. But the fact that California’s leadership, overseeing the ninth largest economy in the world, so devalues science education that it’s willing to risk producing a generation of science illiterates is alarming. Our focus needs to be on better preparing our students. As it is, students in California and across the country all too frequently arrive in high school with limited science experience from elementary or middle school. The intense focus on testing in math and reading in early grades, increasing class sizes, and ever-smaller budgets leaves little room for serious science education. Even two years of mandatory laboratory science in high school can’t completely close that gap. The effect of these years of limited experience in science is that many students arrive in college uninterested in science and at a disadvantage in developing critical thinking skills. One of my colleagues, who has taught middle and high school science, says science is critical for “figuring stuff out.” Science experiences help students gain the skills they need to solve challenges and make decisions in all areas of their lives, not just in chemistry. Additionally, students who may be interested in science degrees often lack proper foundations for scientific observation or measurement when they begin college-level work.

Meanwhile, colleges and universities struggle to fill gaping holes in STEM education. How can students from low-performing and under-funded schools eventually pursue the high-paying jobs available in STEM fields, when they arrive at college ill-prepared for even the introductory coursework in these majors? To adequately support these students, we’ll need more tutoring and academic support; otherwise, these students are at risk of earning low grades or changing majors before they’ve gotten through the gateway courses.

Why does all of this matter? Well, for one thing, the federal government has been emphasizing the importance of strengthening science, technology, engineering and math education to keep the U.S. workforce competitive in a global economy. President Obama has called for training 100,000 new STEM teachers by 2020 and generating a million new STEM graduates in order to keep the United States’ edge as a leading technological innovator. The country needs graduates proficient in STEM fields to fill jobs in fields ranging from computer science to environmental engineering to renewable energy. We also need knowledgeable teachers at all levels, from kindergarten to university, to prepare
our students to pursue these careers.

High school science classes are vital for exposing students to STEM fields; for some, it will be the last science instruction they ever have, and for others it will lay the groundwork for a college major and perhaps a science-related career. Either way, we’ll only harm ourselves by failing to provide comprehensive science education in high school. By generating high school graduates uninterested and ill prepared for STEM majors and careers, we’ll be creating a knowledge deficit from which we might never rebound.

While programs like those now offered at NDNU are invaluable, they’re no substitute for good educational policy and investment in science education. St. Julie Billiart, co-foundress of the Sisters of Notre Dame said, “Teach them what they need to know for life.” In providing support for students pursuing STEM fields at NDNU, we are doing just that.

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