Growing Future Scientists
The Nation’s Report Card was released early this year and science didn’t do so well: just 1 of every 100 American schoolchildren got an A, while less than a third even passed.
The results were especially disturbing here in California, where fourth-graders lagged behind their peers in 43 other states and came in a dead heat for last with students in Hawaii, Arizona and Mississippi.
“We live in the land of Google, Apple and Intel. We should be at the hub of this stuff,” says Muhammed Chaudhry, president of the Silicon Valley Education Foundation (SVEF), a group that partners with businesses to prepare students for college. “We’re committed to preparing students to be successful – not just beyond high school but beyond college.”
SVEF is working with Santa Clara County’s 32 school districts to make college-bound classes the default curriculum for all students entering high school. It also urges that Algebra 1 be completed no later than seventh grade.
The problem is that there are huge achievement gaps here in the Bay Area. On one hand, this region routinely sends more finalists to the Intel Science Talent Search than anywhere else in the nation.
On the other hand, teachers in Santa Clara County estimate that more than 10 percent of new kindergartners are below a desirable level of academic proficiency. The same holds at the high school level, where 16 percent of county students fail the state mathematics proficiency exam needed to graduate.
To that end, SVEF has created a $3 million initiative for math and science programs. New programs are being built around a hardy diet of science, technology engineering and math – otherwise known as STEM.
One of these, the AdVENTURE program at Herman Intermediate School in San Jose’s Oak Grove School District, opened last year with a strong hands-on approach to science. Science and math are interwoven with writing, reading and history to create an innovative curriculum that’s “good for kids who have trouble sitting in a classroom all day with worksheets,” according to Betsy Fitch, the language arts teacher who helped integrate the program.
One school unit focused around building a sustainable community, in which the students – 5th through 8th graders – created “trash-to-treasure” projects by recycling debris, such as old T-shirts into reusable bags. One girl built a fishing pole out of some household rubbish. Other children created a compost heap for the school garden.
The students collected their data and published their final reports on websites, in online newsletters and independent videos.
By the end of the year, Fitch says, “100 percent of 7th graders were proficient or advanced” in science.
Value in Testing?
There is an ongoing debate about the value of additional science testing for California’s Standardized Testing and Report (STAR) program. The state currently measures science proficiency only three times during a student’s career: in Grades 5, 8 and 10.
In June of this year, the National Research Council called for more frequent science testing, the rationale being: what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get attention.
“That kind of testing regime would put more emphasis on science instruction in elementary and middle school but at a price,” says Chaudhry. “It would add to the number of school days given over to testing, but also to the amount of time spent on “test prep” that already goes on in math and reading.”
Some scientists and science teachers argue that the STAR, in fact, does a poor job of determining what students actually know or don’t know.
“The STAR is not about knowledge, it’s about analyzing data,” asserts Belinda Lowe-Schmahl, executive director of Schmahl Science Workshop, a local nonprofit that works with more than 32,000 Bay Area students a year. Her organization supplements classroom learning; visits schools in a fully equipped, $200,000 mobile biotech lab and supports original research by high school students.
“If schools don’t budget for and invest in hands-on science instruction and authentic research experiences, they won’t advance their students’ science skills, nor will they achieve high STAR scores,” says Lowe-Schmahl.
Nevertheless, she is full of hope for the future.
“I believe that students are actually better off and are more knowledgeable today than they were when we started up in 1996,” says Lowe-Schmahl. “The quality of science fair projects this year was amazing. They’re post-doc level. That tells you the quality of teachers who are teaching science.”
Lowe-Schmahl is a biochemist who got involved with science education as a concerned parent. Sixteen years ago, her daughter came home from 4th grade and announced that she “hated science.” The declaration practically broke her mother’s heart, until Lowe-Schmahl realized that her child’s distaste had everything to do with how science was being presented – rote memorization from textbooks, the occasional book report and home-based science fair project.
How about if we start a science club for you and a couple friends? she offered. By the end of the first week, the little club had grown to 12 kids. By the end of the school year, there were 300 participants.
Today, Schmahl Science Workshops Inc., based on the campus of History San Jose, uses a hands-on, non-textbook approach that draws youngsters in with the fun of science. It uses the Socratic questioning method and then provides enough specific vocabulary to speak the exotic new language.
It goes into classrooms around the Bay Area; with so many scientists out of work these days, it’s been pretty easy finding teachers and mentors to help and supplement – on a volunteer and paid basis - what teachers are already doing.
“We have one program where the students are paired one on one with an intern,” says Lowe-Schmahl. “They implement their design, write up what they’ve accomplished, analyze their data and go through safety reviews.”
The youngest of them is a second grader, all the way up through 12th grade.
And why not? Doesn’t every kid have an inner scientist?
From almost the moment they’re born, children are experimenting, challenging and pushing the envelope.
“They do very well with the methodology of how to do science,” Lowe-Schmahl notes. “When you think about it, it’s really just formalized play.”
Sara Solovitch is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.
There’s a world of science riches here in the Bay Area, just waiting to be visited.
- California Academy of Science – 55 Music Concourse Dr., Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. 415-379-8000; calacademy.org.
- Computer History Museum – 1401 N Shoreline Blvd., Mountain View. 650-810-1010; computerhistory.org.
- The Exploratorium – 3601 Lyon St., San Francisco. 415-561-0399; exploratorium.edu.
- Intel Museum – 2200 Mission College Blvd., Santa Clara. 408-765-0503; intel.com/about/companyinfo/museum/index.htm.
- Rock It Science – 2110 Walsh Ave. Suite F, Santa Clara. 408-969-1900; rockitscience.com/index.html.
- The Tech Museum of Innovation – 201 South Market St., San Jose. 408-294-8324; thetech.org.
The Mad Molecule in Aptos is a science store that hosts birthday parties and Saturday night parties where kids dissect squid, experiment with solar energy or build rocket ships.
“It’s all about fun and doing something exciting,” says Steve Heuer, the store’s educator, who also teaches classes at San Jose’s Discovery Museum and San Francisco’s Exploratorium. “Sometimes you find the science after the fun.”
As for the kids: They come to let their inner scientists out.