WASHINGTON—Is a "mystery tube" the key to improving science education in the United States? The prop, a cylinder with two pieces of string running through it, briefly took center stage here at a packed symposium on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education, part of the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Mark Stefanski, a high school biology teacher from Marin Academy in San Rafael, Calif., called up two volunteers from the audience and asked them to figure out the internal structure of the opaque tube, made of about 10 inches of PVC pipe. They began shaking the tube and pulling on the strings, just as Stefanski's high school students do in class.

"Are they doing science?" he asked the audience.

The audience overwhelmingly voted "yes."

His point, echoed by many of his fellow panelists, was that teachers at the high school and undergraduate university level aren't giving students a broad enough understanding of how scientists go about their research. While scientific literacy in the United States is increasing, thanks to the requirement that college students take at least one year of science, the general public is relatively ignorant about the process of scientific inquiry and the nature of science. The importance of clearly defining the field and explaining the methodology behind it are paramount at a time when debates among policy-makers about addressing climate change and among educators about teaching evolution are blurring the public's understanding of the difference between science and ideology, said the panelists at the talk, "Aiming for Scientific Literacy by Teaching the Process, Nature and Limits of Science."

Too often, school instructors describe the scientific process as linear and conclusive, said many of the panelists, when in fact scientific inquiry is open-ended. In typical high school curricula, teachers present the scientific method as consisting of a sequence of steps. For example: Step 1, develop a hypothesis; Step 2, test it; Step 3, draw a conclusion. At the end of the mystery tube exercise, teachers are supposed to not reveal what's inside. The point of the lesson is to show students that results are rarely decisive.

"We are teaching the scientific method too simplistically," says Judy Scotchmoor, of the University of California Museum of Paleontology at Berkeley, where she develops tools for training STEM teachers. An overemphasis on rote learning and an under-emphasis on critical thinking yield students who lack an interest in science. She quoted surprising statistics showing that the longer students study science, the more negatively they view it.

To replace the linear approach to teaching the scientific method, Scotchmoor designed a flow chart, which Stefanski has implemented in his classes, that shows the messiness of scientific inquiry, with arrows running in multiple directions among several steps: exploration and discovery, testing ideas, benefits and outcomes, community analysis and feedback. She's had a number of working scientists diagram their own discoveries on her flow chart and post them on the Web as examples. Her goal is to show that "science is dynamic and creative and far from linear."

The White House also has recently embraced a more broad-based approach to improving middle school students' STEM performance as part of its Educate to Innovate program. In September, the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology recommended that any new educational standards "transcend the emphasis on low-level factual recall found in many science classes today to include the skills needed to solve complex problems, work in teams, and interpret and communicate scientific information."

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in a Friday speech at AAAS, highlighted many of the administration's education goals, including recruiting 100,000 new science and math teachers in the next decade and creating a new advanced research projects agency for education, ARPA-ED. Along these lines, President Obama hosted a White House science fair in October, celebrating the winners of numerous middle-school and high-school competitions. Holdren said Obama's staff had booked him for just 15 minutes with the kids, but the president ended up staying for nearly an hour. "He loves this stuff," said Holdren, who showed a slide of Obama speaking with two young inventors of a steering wheel that could detect if its driver were drunk.

The panelists at the "mystery tube" talk questioned the effectiveness of science fairs in general. "They have a relatively small effect," said Jon D. Miller, a scientific literacy and education expert at Michigan State University. "They help people with a strong interest in science, so they're not a conversion process but a reinforcement process." Still, it's a good start.

Photo: Obama and students from Blue Bell, Pa. at the White House Science Fair, via Pete Souza White House Blog