A Call for Change in Science Education

When a student chooses a university to extend and enrich their academic career they often turn to research universities like that of Umass Amherst.  It’s no surprise that students intrigued by science would make such a decision and those who choose a more conventional university are no less intrigued by science but instead may be looking for a more teaching orientated experience.  The issue at hand was recently articulated by some 13 HHMI Scientist-Educators in an opinion piece published in the January 14, 2011, issue of Science.  Their premise is that at research universities the art of teaching is often overshadowed by the need to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to excel in research.  The article refers to the “weeding out” process that seems to dominate at such universities, from my understanding this process involves students going through the required courses and those who don’t respond well to the current paradigm are simply the ones who won’t make it as research scientists.  These prestigious professors and scientists say that there need not be a tradeoff between teaching and research.   They offer several initiatives that would improve the quality of undergraduate science education and also student engagement:

  • Educate faculty about research on learning in order to employ the most effective teaching methods;
  • Create awards and named professorships that provide research support for outstanding teachers;
  • Require excellence in teaching for promotion;
  • Create teaching discussion groups for peer support and feedback;
  • Create cross-disciplinary programs in college-level learning, enabling collaboration among education, psychology, and science or engineering departments;
  • Provide ongoing support for effective science teaching; and
  • Engage chairs, deans and presidents in creating a culture that values and promotes both teaching and science.

These HHMI scientist-educators are privileged in that they have the latitude to experiment with different teaching techniques and methodologies to see which are fruitful and which are not.  Their experiences with these initiatives have them excited about the promise of applying a similar approach on a national scale to better both the teachers’ ability and the students’ educational experience.  Diane O’Dowd, a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the University of California-Irvine, had this to say about the techniques she has implemented with her own students,  “We’re all scientists, but most of us don’t teach scientifically. When I started evaluating my students’ progress in class and not just at exam time, I was excited to see that their learning improved because I was able to address misconceptions and clarify points that I had not realized were a problem.”.

The idea of uniting professional researchers and teachers in a collaborative effort is the type of science education reform that we at the MAS are striving to accomplish within the next few years.  The statistics are concerning as this article suggests that 60% of all students who enter into a science degree end up switching out of that degree program.  The job market is primed for students educated in Science-Technology-Engineering and Math, and students are begging for an experience that matches their intrigue.  How we handle this issue will have far reaching impacts on our nation’s future.   If we can manage to create a learning environment that embraces their intrigue and facilitates their success in STEM education by combining the art and science of teaching and research then we’ve got a solid ground from which to stand.

For more information on STEM education, the HHMI initiative and the MAS feel free to contact us at http://massacademysciences.org/.

Written by: Matthew Panechelli

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