Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Disturbingly Low Numbers of Students Going Into Science Education

There is a growing concern about the low numbers of American students who are going into science and engineering majors, yet alone science education. To demonstrate how bad it is, here are some data from Maryland (coming out of the latest NSTA Express updates)"

"In the March 15 edition of Education Week, Nancy Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools for Maryland, states "America has dropped the ball on science, mathematics, and technology education. Our nation has ignored science and math education for far too long, and a serious investment in technology training at all levels is overdue. We need more physicists, mathematicians, chemists, and other technically skilled people in the pipeline, and we need to recruit more prospective teachers in those disciplines. That process begins with a new emphasis on mathematics and science in elementary and secondary schools.”

Grasmick brings attention to the disturbing statistics in her own state where “only one student in physical-science education graduated from a higher education institution last year. Just 13 students in chemistry education graduated from a Maryland college or university, and 11 graduated in physics education.” At the same time, she notes that Maryland schools needed 12 physical-science teachers, 59 chemistry teachers, and 29 physics teachers. “We need to interest students in math, science, and technology at a younger age, spark their curiosity, and help them understand how they can become part of a future that desperately needs their skills.” Grasmick served on the committee to develop the recent National Academies’ report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm. "

It is hard to believe that only 25 students in the Maryland university system went into physical science education. How and when can we turn this around? What will the effects be for our next generation of scientists? Answers to these questions are critical to the American way of life, for literally our economy, place in the world, national security, and standard of living depend on science and technology.

We have to find a way on a large scale to get more students interested in math, science and engineering to remain competitive in the long run. We have some advantages over most of the world, including China and India, due to our university research system, our funding, and the technology infrastructure that has been built up since WW II. This will continue for possibly the next twenty years, but if we do not have the talent available to take over for our current research base (who will be retiring in large numbers over that time period), what is next? It starts with teachers in middle school and high school, to get students engaged and interested and enthusiastic for science and research so they may go on in college.

Some say it will take another Sputnik moment to energize the country on a large scale, when the masses in the 1950s saw a need to keep up and surpass the Soviet Union when they beat us into space. And yet, in 2004 we graduated less than half the number of physicists from college than the year before Sputnik (and in the 1950s we had a significantly smaller population). This is a complicated issue, and it will take some dramatic event or some new incentives to draw our brightest students back to the sciences (such as salaries and recognition in society that can compete with those of lawyers, doctors, investment bankers, and so on)...we clearly are not near that point at this time.


vonny said...

Here is a message from erica (there were problems with the comments, so this comes from an email message):

A few days ago, I was talking with some of my fellow physics majors about where we wanted to take physics after we got out of Stanford. When I told
my friends that I wanted to be a high school physics teacher, I got a lot of blank looks. Then my friend Mike said "but you won't need to do THAT...
you're so GOOD at physics!"

Mike's comment was very representative of a general vibe that I get about how people feel about students who want to teach high school physics. Because there are so many terrible physics teachers out there, it seems
like people my age assume that those who go into lower-level physics education are the dregs of the physics community, those who try to become researchers or professors and just can't make it.

I know better thanks to people like you, Vonny, but I have to admit that I dislike the fact that my friends don't respect my ambition and picture me thirty years down the road wearing nerdy glasses and explaining torque to a
class of bratty kids throwing spitballs at me.

Anyway, the upshot of this is that people still believe the old saying
"those who can't do, teach," and it's very hard for a college student to pursue a career in teaching science if they're constantly bombarded with
this message. In order to recruit more math and science teachers, people need to start respecting them more.

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