Researchers Scrutinize US Science Education, as Students Lag

February 22, 2009 08:02 AM
by Jen O'Neill
A recent study shows that science students learn as well through experimentation as they do through direct instruction, a potentially significant finding given the current debate over education reform.

Hands-on Versus Hands-off Learning

Researchers at Western Michigan University have found that middle school students learn science “nearly equally as well whether through experimentation or direct instruction.” United Press International reported that William Cobern, Renee Schwartz, and David Schuster spent several years studying middle school instruction during two-week summer programs to learn there’s no advantage to either method of science instruction.

Hands-on approaches, experimentation and fact learning are the three most common ways schools in the United States teach science and math to K-12 students, according to the National Science Education Standards overview.

In another recent study, 6,000 college freshmen in China and the United States planning to study science and engineering took a three-part test with components covering factual knowledge of physics and scientific reasoning. Chinese students greatly outperformed American students in their knowledge of physics, though both groups scored comparably on the scientific reasoning portion.

According to Ohio State University Research News, the two groups were chosen because their educational systems are so different, and both contain strengths and weaknesses. Lei Bao, lead author of the study, stated that the United States focuses on scientific methods, with flexible science courses, whereas students from Asian countries are taught with the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) curriculum.

Bao asserts that although science reasoning cannot be taught, it can be enhanced through inquiry-based learning, “where students work in groups, question teachers and design their own investigations.”

Background: The impact of political pressure on standardized testing

Although many educators take into account that the Untied States falls behind other countries in science education, they do not see standardized testing as the answer to the problem.

U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, stressed the need to rebuild the U.S. education system, saying, “It’s increasingly clear that building a world-class education system that provides students with a strong foundation in math and science must be part of any meaningful long-term economic recovery strategy.” Many policymakers attribute No Child Left Behind testing requirements to stunting the progress of science education in America, claiming the focus is on math and reading.

Mike Petrilli from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, explains that with No Child Left Behind, “The lesson is that what gets tested gets taught,” reports U.S. News.

Opinion: Pursuing new methods of teaching science

Meanwhile, some school districts strive to bridge the gap between new methods of teaching science and standardized testing.

U.C. Santa Cruz reports that new teachers in the United States are embracing a core model of teaching based on the Stoddart model, which bridges the gap between language and science with an emphasis on “the use of contextualization, collaborative inquiry, and instructional conversations.”

Trish Stoddart is a University of California, Santa Cruz, professor who developed a method to help English language learners who are also learning science concepts understand scientific principles through the heavy use of words.

According to Stoddart, “You can learn as many new words in a science lesson as you learn in a foreign language lesson,” adding, “Science is very language rich.”

Meanwhile, Washington state schools proposed new guidelines for teaching science to students, simply by creating classrooms that are more engaging for learners.

The proposal was born out of the idea that students in the United States are far behind students around the world in science education. The new methods would teach fewer but deeper lessons. According to Mary McClellan from the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, “In the United States, we teach a mile wide and an inch deep. The folks that are doing better on national standardized tests teach less, more deeply.”

Reference: Science Web Guide


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