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Focus On Excellence in Science Education

by Joseph A. Heppert, Chair, Society Committee on Education
February 6, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 6

Credit: University Of Kansas/University Relations
Credit: University Of Kansas/University Relations

The court decision on the Dover, Pa., intelligent design case is in, and those defending high-quality science curricula for the public schools have been vindicated. This legal outcome is highly significant for Dover, for states in which the intelligent design controversy continues, and for citizens who want to understand the key points in the debate. Still, despite its importance, the decision was the epitome of an anticlimax for those of us in the sciences.

We realized from the inception of the most recent controversy that, although it is certainly the right of all Americans to hold their personal beliefs, intelligent design does not pass muster as a scientific theory and so should not be included in K-12 science classrooms.

The recent ACS Board policy statement on the teaching of evolution clearly states, "The inclusion of nonscientific explanations in science curricula misrepresents the nature and processes of science and compromises a central purpose of public education-the preparation of a scientifically literate workforce." The Dover decision reinforces this concept: It is inappropriate in a science class to present nonscientific concepts as alternatives to or substitutes for our best scientific models for how the universe and the living systems within it work. The decision also pointedly states how far the truth has to be stretched, bent, and even broken in order to make some of these nonscientific "alternatives" fit under the umbrella of science.

For those of us trained in the sciences, the real scandal of this interlude is that it serves as a distraction from the genuine, systemic challenges facing our current system of science education. Rather than expending energy on pointless arguments about nonscientific theories, we need to address why we aren't more successful at helping our K-12 students know enough about science and scientific careers, become engaged by science, and participate in the background course work they need to choose a career path in the sciences.

I am not trying to belittle the hard work of individuals who have tirelessly advocated against distortions of both scientific knowledge and the foundational principles and processes of science. I simply want to remind everyone that our real goal has to be to effect meaningful improvement in science education. We need forward motion!

Ultimately, this goal translates into increasing student achievement in science courses, improving student understanding of the nature of science, enhancing student engagement in science, and increasing the number of talented students who choose to pursue scientific careers. The time has come for those of us trained in scientific disciplines to raise our voices in a chorus that drowns out spurious arguments: a chorus that delivers a loud, clear, unmistakable challenge to educational leaders and policymakers about the genuine concerns in science education that threaten our children's future, our profession, and our nation's competitiveness.

The challenges facing science education include the poor performance of our 12th-grade students on the science portion of the National Assessment of Educational Progress; the pending retirement of one-third of the qualified teacher workforce; the decline in the number of students studying engineering; and the decrease in the National Science Foundation's Education & Human Resources Directorate budget, which has been reduced by 16% over the past two years.

I encourage you to use the recommendations in the executive summary of the October 2005 report by the National Academies, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future" (, as a starting point for dialogue with local and national educational leaders and policymakers. The first recommendation in the report, along with its accompanying implementation actions, provides an outstanding basis for discussions with policymakers about near-term objectives in science education:

"Improve America's talent pool by vastly improving K-12 science and mathematics education."

Action 1. Annual recruitment of 10,000 science and mathematics teachers.

Action 2. Large-scale use of institutes and master's degree programs to strengthen the 250,000 existing mathematics and science teachers.

Action 3. Dramatically increase the number of students taking advanced science and mathematics course work prior to college.

The implementation of these recommendations, along with reinvigorated support for NSF's education programs (which remain a cornerstone for the direct involvement of scientists, mathematicians, and engineers in improving K-12 education), would set our national dialogue about science education and science education policy on a positive trajectory. As our profession faces the test of how we will address the need to improve science education, let's eliminate the distracters and focus our attention on the real challenges that confront our students, our schools, and our nation.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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