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Can Scientists Reform Science Education?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I am honored to have been invited to give the keynote bridge talk between the 2011 Midwest Regional Zebrafish Conference and the 2011 Zebrafish and Education Summit in Rochester, MN on August 5, 2011.

I eagerly agreed to speak as I am intrigued and enthused by the science education program for schools that was begun by Dr. Stephen Ekker. Most of the time, Dr. Ekker runs a genetics laboratory at Mayo Clinic Rochester researching the assignment of genes and gene sets critical in vertebrate patterning and organogenesis. And then he pours his passion into his unique school science education program, InSciEd Out. Watch this to learn more:

He is not the only scientist to have begun a significant science project with schools. UK based science educator Alom Shaha reminded me of the wonderful bumblebee project carried out with schoolchildren in the UK that resulted in a published journal paper. Read about this marvelous project in Alom’s blog post for The Guardian

My challenge for this keynote is to speak for 45 minutes on "Why should scientists care about science education reform?"

I have many ideas myself, which have been formed over the years via a blend of my experience of being surrounded by science in academia as well as applying various pedagogical concepts from teaching to many levels of students (and the public).

I’m curious about other big ideas scientists might have out there to change how science is taught. I want to hear from you. Educators and science communicators are welcome to join in, but I’m especially interested in what scientists and engineers think about this topic.

Before I offer you the challenge, here are answers from a few well-known scientists who communicate well with the general public.

I asked the question of Philip Alcabes, who is a Professor at Hunter College’s School of Public Health and in the Public Health program at the Doctoral School at CUNY. He is the author of Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to Avian Flu, Here is his thoughtful answer:


"Why should scientists care about reforming science education? First, because science and education share an aspiration, which is enlightenment. When the educational system isn’t causing more people to be more intrigued by the world than they used to be, then it needs some repair. And I mean this even if the interest that is not being sparked is interest in art history or sign language, not necessarily genes or space exploration or phytochemistry, the science-y things. Scientists should be interested in the educational system because we share that enlightenment aim.

Second, because scientists ARE interested in more people becoming intrigued by all those science-y things, and education is a way to do that. Television and the internet are all ways to summon more interest in science among children, but why not have schools doing that, too?

Third, because of democracy. Education is an essential tool for civics, for having a strong democracy. And science needs democracy and needs to BE a democracy: Without democratic science, you get bad science or no science or you get harmful science (I’m thinking of Lysenko)."

Kate Clancy, an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and a colleague of mine both at the University of Illinois and right here on SciAm with Context and Variation, offered me her opinion via twitter direct messages (she’s @KateClancy):


"My first thoughts are that we need science literate voters to fund the NSF and NIH, The public needs more appreciation for science work, too. If more kids are excited by science more will appreciate science and go into it, which will create more scientists and fewer premeds ;) " (I left her tongue-in-cheek comment because I, too, have educated primarily pre-med students and few future scientists).

Kate continues: "Also, every year I’m very saddened by my gen ed science teaching experience, because of the large number of students who had teachers who told them they were dumb or bad at science."

I then asked Kate what she would do if she could get into the schools to help educate some of the next generation, to which she replied:


"Personally, I’d want to work with girls and show them what science can really be about and focus on doing small group discussions on women’s health issues. I’d want them to see that science is not all about splitting atoms." (My comment: or genomics!)

Here is the eloquent opinion of Lawrence Krauss, Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and the Physics Dept, Co-Director of the Cosmology Initiative, and Inaugural Director of the Origins Initiative at Arizona State University and author of several highly readable books including, Quantum Man and The Physics of Star Trek.


"Science is one of the most exciting intellectual pursuits humans have ever carried out, and vital for meeting the challenges of the 21st century. We owe it to our children not only to expose them to some of the most remarkable discoveries humans have made, but to equip them to deal with the modern world. A good science education is essential in this regards, and scientists, who are privileged to be a part of the exciting scientific endeavor should help pay back the gift they have gotten by providing their resources and expertise in the educational process."

Lisa Randall, who studies theoretical particle physics and cosmology at Harvard University and is the author of Warped Passages and the upcoming Knocking on Heaven’s Door gave me a succinct answer via twitter DM. (she’s @lirarandall)


"We live in a world where understanding and appreciating science matters.

Everyone–including scientists–should care. And of course, more and better-trained students will be the source of tomorrow’s advances."

Zen Faulkes, Associate Professor at University of Texas-Pan America sent me his opinion: (He’s on twitter @DoctorZen)



Scientists generally rate highly in public opinion polls when people are asked who they respect and trust. But signs are not good for it staying that way.

I see an erosion of that respect. A lot of people see scientists as just another group of special interest lobbyists that can be bought. "For every Ph.D., there is an equal and opposite PhD." (The response to the Climategate emails were another example.)

Some of that, I think, is because many people get distorted views of how science works from their education. There are big long lists of facts and names, most of which are the science of decades and centuries ago. It doesn’t convey how scientists go about their jobs.

I would like to think that if science education were better, people might respect science in all its forms — not just the obviously pragmatic ones like cancer research and new smart phones."

For an educator’s perspective, I asked Alom Shaha (cited above) for his viewpoint about what he thought scientists could add to the classroom:


"If I were trying to be controversial, I’d reply "very little, until they properly understand how schools work". What I mean by this is that good intentions are not enough to make a difference to school education if the people trying to "help" make no effort to appreciate what it is that we teachers have to do and the conditions in which we have to do them.

On a more positive note, I feel getting scientists into schools is a good idea – so that students can see that science is a living, breathing activity, and not just something they read about in textbooks. Also establishing relationships with scientists, as I have done, means that we teachers can provide opportunities for students to do "real" science, which we simply cannot provide in schools." Then Alom reminded me of the bumblebee work described above as a great example of this.

Now it is your turn. Please login to join the discussion. I know it takes a few minutes to register, but a conversation on this topic is quite important for the future of scientific thinking in the general public and future scientists.

If you are an educator, I’d like to hear your thoughts on what a scientist can provide to you, your classroom, to the school district. What would you love to see the students get excited about? From your vantage point, what is keeping a scientist from contributing to the classroom?

If you are a scientist or engineer, feel free to chime in on any or all of these questions:

Do you feel scientists and engineers should play a role in determining what science is taught in schools? If so, what would this look like?

What are the most important concepts science education should teach about how science (or engineering) is done? (This is an area of particular interest to me).

In your field, what would be the top five things you think the average person should know even if they have no plans (or especially if they have no plans) on going into a science or engineering related career?

Do you currently have a project that is integrated into a school or school district that has shown to be successful in engaging students toward science or engineering? What are the main objectives of your project?

Do you have an idea for such a project? What would the student who successfully completed your project have learned?

And finally, feel free to contribute anything else you think I may have forgotten to pointedly ask about.

Let’s begin the conversation on how science education can change for the better, with help from the people who do science everyday!

About the Author: Joanne Manaster is a faculty lecturer in Biology at the University of Illinois, currently teaching an online course on the human genome to certified teachers wishing to get their Masters in Science Teaching. She is a science outreach enthusiast who runs a girl’s bioengineering camp (GAMES at U of I) and advises the iGEM synthetic biology team there as well. This all in addition to her video rich website, Joanne Loves Science, which offers a gentle introduction to science for the young or a reintroduction to those who may have forgotten they used to really like science at one time. She co-hosts the blog PsiVid right here on SciAm.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Comments 11 Comments

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  1. 1. kclancy 9:44 am 08/4/2011

    I’m flattered to be in such great company. Those were some great answers and I hope to hear more from others.

    One of the other reasons I love science and want other people to love it too: it’s really, really worth loving. It makes life more beautiful to appreciate science.

    One of my favorite posts on the topic is by Patrick Clarkin, an anthropologist at UMass Boston: Check out the great quotes and his perspective — very moving.

    Link to this
  2. 2. Monotreme 10:25 am 08/4/2011

    One reason not mentioned directly, that is very important to me, is that a functioning representative democracy needs a scientifically literate citizenry.

    There are many examples of why this is, but several come immediately to mind:

    * The "debate" over anthropogenic global warming, mentioned in Dr. Manaster’s column above;

    * A couple of recent murder trials which received a lot of media attention;

    * Columns such as <a href="">Kevin Williamson’s commentary on balancing the budget from a conservative perspective, which contains whoppers like "we aren’t flying in space anymore" and "[s]ave $36 billion by cutting health research and training. Let Pfizer do it." One can’t tell whether he’s joking or not, but I’d bet most people reading his column don’t realize how painfully misinformed these statements are. A scientifically literate commenter would never say them, even in jest.

    Science is not an activity performed by a guild of trolls slaving away in basement alchemical labs. It is part and parcel of public policy and politics. We need to engage in the public forum for a multitude of reasons, but there are at least two: citizens deserve to know how their taxes are spent, and governments need to base decisions on rational scientific data wherever possible.

    Jim @7synapses on Twitter

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  3. 3. pdcaton 10:32 am 08/4/2011

    As an engineer and occasional lecturer/mentor for power engineering students, as well as a parent, I feel that STEM education needs to be two things to maintain students’ interest.

    1. The science must be relatable to the students’ personal experiences. The skill set for abstract reasoning that allows one to relate one concept to another concept is very uncommon. The British have an expression "What’s that got to do with the price of tea in China?", and that sums up what most people’s understanding of STEM is. They don’t see how it relates to their current experience. In order to lure students into any field of study, you have to make it interesting for them, and give them concepts they can relate to and understand. Thinking locally makes it easier to act globally. Instead of talking about saving elephants to students in middle America, involve them in conservation efforts in their own area. Understanding their own influence on their own environment will make it easier for them to understand others.

    2. You have to make the lessons faster-paced and "cool". Experiments that show concepts physically make for much better concept retention and raise interest. A Rube Goldberg/Heath Robinson contraption that does a bunch of seemingly unrelated processes to achieve a simple one can keep students entertained. Show mechanical advantage by having the smallest student try to move the largest student by hand first, then use a lever or series of pulleys to make it easier, for example. Incorporate newer media in the lesson, but only to show another application of the concept. Physical demonstrations trump any other explanation, abstraction skills need to be developed. Teachers must interact with students, lecturing is really only for university level, teaching is a different skill. Encourage questions and a back and forth process, those help more with defining concepts than anything else. And answering questions encourages the teacher to have a better understanding themselves. As long as one keeps the interest, everyone enjoys the lessons. But ALWAYS make it relatable to the experiences of the students for your starting point.

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  4. 4. pdcaton 10:40 am 08/4/2011

    A good example of great engineering education is at

    Practical application of concepts really helps drive home the ideas. Plus, it is germane to what the students will be doing after graduation, which helps with their continuing retention of what they learned.

    Link to this
  5. 5. klarg 12:53 pm 08/4/2011

    We just can’t have science going about refudiating the Bible.

    Link to this
  6. 6. KitchenPantryScientist 2:54 pm 08/4/2011

    I’m relatively new to science education, but I agree that science becomes more interesting and memorable when students can apply concepts to their own experiences.

    It’s also important for science educators to give kids plenty of room to explore from a young age. In my opinion, elementary science should be treated more like a creative art. Kids should be asked more questions like “what else could you try?” Fanning the spark of curiosity will make them love science, rather than fear it as they move forward in their educations.

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  7. 7. hogeb 5:36 pm 08/4/2011

    I am an ecologist with a PhD in biology and a science educator who works with teachers and schools through HUNSTEM (Houston Urban Network for STEM). As a scientist I’d like to reiterate what Zen Faulkes stated. My role as a science educator only strengthens this conviction, but in a constructive note (pun intended), I would like to emphasize that the most influential role a scientist can make is not as a speaker but as a mentor. Work with science fairs, science camps, and school projects. Project-based learning is crucial to science literacy.

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  8. 8. LuannLee 12:45 am 08/5/2011

    I’m a HS science teacher, NBCT, and recently received a doctorate in science education. This week, I attended a wonderful nanotechnology workshop. The presenters and facilitators are academics or employed in the field. We took home much knowledge, many engaging classroom investigations to introduce students to nanotech, and commitments from the presenters to support our work with students through their presence and availability as resources. (I confess to also receiving a small stipend for attending, great lunches and breakfasts, and great lab materials, but that’s not why I went.) Tomorrow, we will tour a nanotech lab at a large research university. Sometimes, we do what we do in our classrooms because we don’t know of anything better. I challenge each and every scientist to become involved with outreach to K-12 educators and students in anyway that you can, so our students remain engaged and challenged and we continue to grow in our own learning. Provide workshops, programs, and especially courses that are available when we can attend. Blog, and tell us what you are doing and learning, and ask us how we can use your research to update our curriculum. Work with MS and HS teachers to help us develop investigations and projects that really grow student learning and thinking stills. Help us find funding to continue our education and update our classrooms. Hey, I can dream, can’t I? Mentor students in any way you can, even if it is by email or Skype. Consider ways to reach out to rural schools where students don’t have ready access to university lab facilities. Rural students are in many ways as at risk as inner city students. High school teachers are blessed each day with 200 young minds to excite about science. There’s nothing we’d rather do. Current initiatives call for recruitment of new teachers in STEM subjects. If I could ask anything of scientists, it would be to support practicing teachers who are already making a difference. Ask us to step up, and tell us specifically what you need our students to know and be able to do. We’ll get it done.

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  9. 9. gracebaynes 7:47 am 08/5/2011

    Luann, I love your call to action. At Scientific American, we agree, which is why we are building a program to match teachers with scientists who can help with bringing up-to-date science to life in the classroom. Over 1000 scientists have already signed up, and we hope to offer a searchable service for teachers later this year

    Link to this
  10. 10. LuannLee 1:06 am 08/6/2011

    Thanks, Grace. I will be the first to be all over the service!

    Link to this
  11. 11. Slim or none 6:44 pm 08/8/2011

    I think scientist/engineers/mathematicians should be involved in education, if for no other reason, than their own self interest Where do they think their future students are going to come from and will they be the well educated student they would like to have in their lab? Today’s 6th grader will be beginning graduate school in 10 years. And anyone who has had children knows how quickly that time goes!

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